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Sunday, March 28, 2010

IN THE LAST scene of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," a clerk wheels the crated Ark of the Covenant into a cavernous government warehouse, destined to be lost among endless rows of nondescript boxes. The film's protagonist, Indiana Jones, mutters: "Fools, bureaucratic fools. . . . They don't know what they've got there."

As far as we know, the U.S. government isn't in possession of the Ark. But it is the repository for valuable information that is often stowed away in some agency basement or federal warehouse, inaccessible to most Americans. Although more public information is posted online than ever, there is no law that requires this. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who alluded to the Indiana Jones movie during a recent news conference, hopes to change that.

Mr. Israel has introduced the Public Online Information Act (POIA), a sensible and modest bill that could nevertheless be a catalyst for important changes in how the federal government thinks about and handles public information. It could also lead to greater transparency in the workings of the government.

If government information is not posted online, Mr. Israel asserts, then it should not be considered truly "public." Or, in the words of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit good-government group that helped Mr. Israel with the legislation, "public equals online."

Under the proposed law, information generated by executive agencies and deemed public must be posted online. Documents would be linked to a searchable catalogue, making it easier for users to locate pertinent information. The legislation appropriately preserves protections for sensitive information already exempt from disclosure, including that which touches on national security, personal privacy or trade secrets.

The Office of Management and Budget and the chief information officers of agencies would be responsible for establishing rules to govern postings; agencies would be given three years to get the structures in order. Documents that are created and deemed public after the three years elapse must be displayed online.

The bill has limitations. Public information generated by Congress, including real-time lobbying registrations, is exempt from the mandatory provision, as are public filings within the judicial branch. These concessions were made to boost the chances of passage, but they must be addressed in the future if the goal of government-wide transparency is to be achieved.


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