The burning question for today: can DOD run FILS for OMB without getting a lot of flak from GAO?

FILS is the Federal Information Locator System, and supposedly the answer to the oft-heard complaint of businesses that they spend a lot of time answering the same questions from more than one federal agency.

With FILS, Congress reasoned in passing the Paperwork Reduction Act, Agency A could discover if Agencies B through Z were already asking Question 27, and then simply borrow the answer instead of asking the question again. Business would save time and money through this reduced "paperwork burden."

Congress ordered the Office of Management and Budget to set up the big FILS computer that would discover overlapping questions and to have it working by last April 1. OMB missed the deadline, as the General Accounting Office (GAO) pointed out in a recent letter to Congress, but is now moving slowly toward having a prototype system in place by next fall.

The system will be operated by the Department of Defense (DOD), which has a contractor-run computer program that seems to meet many of the FILS requirements. In fact, 17 federal agencies, from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to the Housing and Urban Development Department, already borrow DOD's system (the Information Requirements Contract Analysis System or IRCAS) to do many of the things FILS is supposed to do.

"FILS is essential for successful implementation of the Paperwork Reduction Act," GAO said. " . . . Although OMB is making progress in establishing FILS, its level of effort demonstrates that OMB does not attach the same degree of importance to FILS as does the Paperwork Reduction Act."

A top OMB official conceded the same thing in a recent interview. "FILS," as he put it, "is not a profit center."

There have been some problems beyond OMB's control, including a lack of money. OMB has been hit by the same budget crunch that has stricken other agencies around town and Congress has not provided additional appropriations for the computer system.

That fact, plus the length of time OMB took to try to hire a manager for FILS, set OMB to looking around to see if something other than a newly minted FILS might not work. They found that the IRCAS system could be expanded to handle most of the requirements Congress envisioned when it ordered FILS.

In fact, OMB and DOD are in the final stages of negotiating an agreement to use IRCAS. Again, the GAO letter to Congress pointed to some obvious problems with this arrangement. The biggest is a concern, which an OMB official said he had heard from several agencies, that the Pentagon would control an enormous amount of information about the rest of the federal establishment. Is that really where power should reside? the question goes.

OMB officials say that DOD will be operating the system only in accordance with OMB's instruction. Management control will remain with OMB. Secondly, the system will provide little more than lists of the kinds of information various agencies seek, rather than total texts. "It's not very exciting stuff," a DOD official said.

Once an agreement is reached, OMB will sit down with the agencies to determine the best method of giving them access to the system.

According to both OMB and the Business Advisory Council on Federal Reports, there is not that much actual word-for-word duplication in government questionnaires and record-keeping requirements. "We have discovered identical questions in only a very few instances," an OMB official said. "Our problem is that there are a lot of similar questions.

A full-blown FILS system would cost $800,000 to $1 million, OMB estimated, and that kind of money is not in the books right now. DOD has already spent $200,000 developing IRCAS and another $150,000 for an enhanced system. OMB's requirements can be added for much less than the full-blown FILS cost, officials say, but final figures are not available.