Government Information: Trends, Public Access, and Current Concerns

by Moya K. Mason


Governments within North America have been undergoing great change over the last decade, changes that are affecting the way they conduct day-to-day business. Some very significant developments or trends have been identified in the arena of government information practices which are causing concerns for the public's access to information - information that many believe to be the property of people in a democratic society. This paper will look at some of the more prevalent issues and misunderstandings that are influencing our ability to gain access to the myriad of government publications that are compiled with increasing fervor. As the preeminent futurist Paul Saffo has pointed out, "libraries were originally created in an era of scarce information ... librarians were sort of mad information hoarders, who were hoarding in the public interest" (Saffo 1995,294). Not so anymore. Gone are the days when libraries could collect everything just in case. Instead, librarians are visualizing a rebirth of the library, one that focuses on an interconnected network of electronic information. These new realities are exacerbated by the problem of fiscal restraints within government departments, which have led to outsourcing and privatization. The impact of such policies has caused an increase in the price of some government publications, a decrease in the availability of others, and an overall concern that these trends will undermine our privacy. Who, if anyone, is overseeing the confidentiality of information stored in huge government databases? Other issues will become apparent as the essay unfolds.

An Overview

Modern society is preeminently governed by technology - information technology that emphasizes automation and information services. Information has been collected about people since the dawn of civilization, but new technology has greatly increased the speed and scale of how much information can be collected and the ways that information can be used. As a result, a quantum leap has taken place in the computerization of society. No one realized the consequences, nor the ways in which these machines would transform our lives. The early uses were thought to be quite limited, such as specialized activities like census taking, and specific scientific applications. The breakthrough came when IBM developed affordable computers, and when programming was automated. The key was the development of the software. Computers exploded in the marketplace, and caused many unexpected consequences. How does this relate to access of government information?

Computers have fundamentally and significantly changed society, the way in which people live, and particularly, how governments are run. As Blake Harris said in IT Outsourcing and the Rise of the Virtual State, "digital media transformed the business of government" (Harris 1997). There seems to be both a trend and a counter-trend affecting how governments are reacting to this new information society. On the one hand, there is the trend of centralization. Society has always had a tendency towards centralization, but it is greatly increased by computers. Governments have ever more power and control over people when information can be accessed by many different departments from a centralized computer. For example, gone are the days when someone on welfare could go into several different offices to request money. This common practice was literally wiped out overnight with the pervasive introduction of computers into government departments.

Under the pressure of information technology, the simultaneous and opposite trend of decentralization is also a reality. Information is now not exclusively in the hands of powerful governments, but also available to many organizations. The Post-modern/post-industrial society is one typified by the rise of multinational corporations; the decline of the nation state; the dismantling of social services; and the commodification of everything, including government information. Everything is networked, and an enormous amount of information has become accessible to companies that compete with one another for our personal information. One of the world's leading cybergurus, Don Tapscott, has pointed out that new laws and modes of government are needed for "governance in an age of networked intelligence" (Harris 1997).

Things are happening and changing very quickly, with speed and the speed of obsolescence the hallmarks of modern society. In this electronic world, people are electronic nomads. In Technology and the Future of the Government, Blake Harris writes that governments must hurry up and figure out how to operate in a digitized environment, and learn "how to govern a people who are completely nomadic" (Harris 1996). But are speedy decisions something the public wants in this age of 'quicker is better'? Paul Saffo points out that:

The real problem with electronic technologies today is that they create tremendous stress on governmental systems because they leave no time for reflection by elected representatives, expected to keep up with the pace of today's society (Saffo 1995,290).

A major trend is the rapid change in the structure of government departments and policies - changes that have had an incredible influence on our access to information. Governments are not usually associated with change. Changes in government policy usually take a long time and are usually associated with pressure from lobbyists or media campaigns.

Certain questions need to be answered before too much time passes, questions such as who has access to information generated by governments? Canadians don't have the same access to information that their neighbours to the south do. Americans have laws that guarantee information is accessible to them (Monty 1996,492). Not so in Canada, where elected officials have no legal requirement to make information available, and have the right to decide what and how much is released (Monty 1996,492). Currently, many things are happening simultaneously that complicate the process even more.

Government Cutbacks, Outsourcing, Fiscal Restraints, and Downsizing: The Tip of the Iceberg

With a large national debt and pressure to substantially reduce it, Canadian political leaders and economists have tried to decrease spending on a departmental basis. They have also privatized some agencies operating under governmental programs, or at least outsourced some operations to save money (Nilsen 1994,191-192). The privatization of federal government printing services came as a surprise to many Canadians, because it has always been a mainstay. The same thing happened in Britain with the privatization of Her Majesty's Stationary Office. The consensus seems to be that private companies can provide services much more efficiently. They operate outside the stringent regulations that governmental agencies are placed under, and they are not answerable to the people. Do these companies have significant privacy regulations built into their work processes? Are they allowed to sell the information to the highest bidder? If information is power, then it must be worth something. There is a strong commercial component to information regularly stored in government databases.

By the mid-1980s, there was no longer the same emphasis put on the rights of the average citizen in regard to government information sources. Rather, a radical shift occurred and the commodification of data became big business. As Kirsti Nilsen has concluded:

The advent of computer technology, government restraint initiatives, and cost recovery requirements have encouraged government managers to see information as a resource that can be commoditized and marketed to generate revenue. Government's desire to support a strong Canadian information industry has encouraged the view that government information should be marketed via the private sector (Nilsen 1994,206).

This is certainly the case with Statistics Canada, which has historically been relied on for its wealth of detailed statistics - information that was regularly and freely given to research and depository libraries. As Vivienne Monty points out, "Statistics Canada was the first agency to engage in a widespread cost-recovery policy, since cost-recovery is now mandated wherever the government believes data has market value" (Monty 1994,495). Curiously, this was just shortly after the Access to Information Act was passed in 1983, a bill that was considered a milestone because it provided the public with the right of access to information under the control of any government institution. In a quick turnaround, the government decided to generate additional revenue by charging for the information. More importantly, the realities of economic restraint, commodification of information, privatization, and deregulation, "provided the inspiration and justification for government to limit the amount of information that it makes available and to increase prices for the information that it does provide" (Nilsen 1994,199). Instead of providing access to government information, government policy is moving toward the development of tools that will provide lists of documents that can be purchased, instead of direct access to full-text information (Nilsen 1994,206). The expectation is in place that the full costs of publications will be realized. Can we say that Canadians will be paying twice for government information? Once with their tax dollars and again out-of-pocket? The same types of challenges can be seen in the United States and Britain.

The Internet: Panacea or Problem?

The Internet has been heralded as the important link by which information can travel between a government and a citizen. Government was certainly one of the first significant organizations to have a strong presence on the Internet. At the same time, it should be recognized that being online is not a reality for every citizen, something that governments must keep in mind as they continue their digitization of information. Electronic sources should only be one avenue, since access to government information is as important to a middle class family as it is to a very poor person. The last thing the government wants to create is an elitist dichotomy. Nobody would tell the government not to use the Internet to make information accessible twenty-four hours a day, but if it is intending to use it exclusively that could be problematic. As Anita Cannon points out, it does help the government by reducing printing costs and postage, and more departments are turning to the technology to provide needed information (Cannon 1997). But how long will the information be online before it is archived?

Canadians believe that since their government is posting information online, it is posting everything online. In reality, our access is minuscule when compared with the Americans. We also have access to many fewer resources compared with the number of paper ones that used to be commonly available through local libraries or by request. Don't be fooled into thinking the floodgates have opened just because there is some information available on the Internet. The other concern is what happens to the person living in outport Newfoundland or on a small island in British Columbia, who doesn't own a computer and lives nowhere near a library that has computers with online access? What if there is no Internet access in their part of the world? How will they get the information they need? Why should one or two media forms make others obsolete?

The Canadian government has also established PubNet, which is an intranet for members of the House of Commons that enables them to stay current without the costs associated with circulating paper copies of all parliamentary publications (Desramaux 1995). Since 1992/1993, parliamentary publications have been reduced by 60% and are only printed off on demand (Desramaux 1995).

In an interesting article, Bernadine E. Abbott-Hoduski cautions the government about relying too heavily on electronic dissemination of information. Demanding that the public and libraries continually upgrade their computer technology to have access to the Internet and the latest CD-ROM products is the government's strategy. That's a tall order, especially when high speed Internet access is not available everywhere and can be quite expensive. Libraries also face problems of slow modems and slow loading webpages on the more popular government sites (Maxymuk 1996,332). And, CD-ROMs can easily get broken and we have no idea how long a storage life they have before they need to be replaced. The other question she poses is what happens when the power goes off? (Abbott-Hoduski 1996,249-250). Even if most people had the money to purchase a home computer with Internet service, how many would have the training needed to search for the information they need? What most will require is a specialist such as a librarian to sift through the databases for specific information, and who will probably require them to pay a user fee to cover the costs. That's if the local library has the latest CD-ROMs released by the government. The other problem is not having access to a library. Many do not.

Depository Libraries

Depository libraries were set up to provide free access to government publications, and have always been an integral link in the communications chain between government and the public. The program is being threatened by a government pushing agencies to privatize, reduce spending, recover costs, and ensure that all publications be in electronic form to save money (Monty 1996,493). Simply because a library is a depository depot for government information, does not mean that they receive everything published. The Depository Service Program is given funds to pay for the distribution of government documents, but it isn't enough to fulfil its mandate. For instance, the last federal budget was released on diskettes that cost $500.00, but not enough funds were available through the DSP to send them to all depository libraries, nor were many local libraries able to buy them because the cost was prohibitive (Monty 1996,493). As a result, not many Canadians had the opportunity to look at their own federal budget. As earlier mentioned, even mainstays of the DSP, such as census information, are now electronic and cost thousands of dollars to access. This price tag is quite significant for depository libraries, to say nothing of ordinary public and research libraries (Monty 1996,495). This is especially problematic when you consider the "rapid growth in the amount of government information and the formats in which it is delivered" (Massant 1994,386).

Other problems include an inability to run some of the most recent electronic products that are released by the government because of system inadequacies, and the reality that although there are literally thousands of CD-ROMs released by the government, they still need to be loaded one at a time, and can only be used on an individual basis (Maxymuk 1996,328). As Bruce W. McConnell writes in New Wine in Old Wineskins, electronic resources are problematic and "technological obsolescence in this rapidly changing industry makes acid-based paper seem like a simple problem" (McConnell 1996,219). He does point out that electronic storage can be quite attractive for saving shelf space and removing the need to bind and repair paper-based publications, stressing that it is what's in the publications that matter, not how they are packaged (McConnell 1996,222). CD-ROMs are very useful, especially for libraries not connected to the Internet, but staying upgraded with shrinking library budgets is costly. Also, helping the numbers of people that rely on depository libraries is difficult when resources are few.

As Prudence S. Adler points out, there is an important role for depository libraries to play as electronic gateways, which can move more toward a just-in-time philosophy for information access (Adler 1996,438). And who pays for expensive printers and the paper needed to download government information? Should the public have to pay user fees? Is government information then only something the rich can afford?

Privacy Issues

As governments rely more on outsourcing and privatization, and since everything is being stored in computers that can transmit information quicker and cheaper than anyone thought possible, there is a growing concern about information privacy. As Brian Foran so eloquently puts it:

What has happened is that the vulnerability of the information and the consequent loss of privacy have been seen by some as the inevitable trade-offs against this greater speed, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness. Privacy is often at the top of the list of rights to be traded off for other perceived benefits, usually because it's not recognized as an issue until it's lost. But once lost, there is no remedy - you can't get it back. So while we are tempted with technology's benefits, we often overlook its vulnerabilities (Foran 1995).

Deregulation of government is a concern, but there's also the consolidation across government departments, which causes a centralization of information (Foran 1995). Information that is often at the fingertips of private companies and sold to the highest bidder. In a world of electronic dissemination, governments must put secure encryption measures in place and make sure that personal information goes only where it is supposed to (Foran 1995). A phenomenal amount of financial information, data concerning our personal preferences, our spending habits, and health records is stored in databases, but we know very little about these systems because many are already controlled by private interests (Yerxa 1995). As Yerxa and Moll point out, Canadians are not given the choice to decide who or what controls the sending and receiving of information, and do not have to give consent (Yerxa 1995).

As databases become more prevalent and compatible, millions of records that are "collected for one purpose will be used for multiple other purposes" (Hernon 1994,24 1). This goes hand in hand with government viewing information as a commodity to be collected and sold to generate revenue (Hernon 1994,243). More and more people are uncomfortable about who knows what about them. It conjures up thoughts of a mass surveillance system reminiscent of Orwell's Big Brother. The same sorts of things are happening in countries such as the United States and Great Britain; there has been a real cry around the world for legislation to protect our private information.


Where does all this leave libraries and librarians? In a waiting game of sorts, unless there are some brave and fearless information specialists willing to spend the time to make their concerns known to the government. If government information is becoming a trickle instead of a stream in libraries, then we must fight for access. Libraries are one of the only remaining examples of equitable public institutions left in a world of those who increasingly have more, and those who don't have much. Government information must be available to those who need it, when they need it, regardless of financial status. In today's environment of information overkill, it will also be the librarian's job to help the public search through it all to find what they need. At the same time, librarians will be expected to teach us how to do it ourselves, or they will become the gatekeepers and the ones with the ability to censure. Finally, it is recommended that librarians keep track of policies concerning the dissemination of government information, and continue to fight for change and improvement of services.

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Cannon, Anita. 1996. Finding Canadian Government Information on the Internet: A Look at Four Principal Sites and Their Initiatives. Government Information in Canada, Vol. 2, No. 4.1.

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