The Office of Management and Budget is drafting guidelines that would require agencies to meet strict standards before conducting studies and surveys, compiling some types of statistics, and publishing reports and documents that the OMB considers duplicative or unnecessary.
The plan -- published in the Federal Register March 15 as a proposed circular -- has produced protests from professional librarians, members of Congress, press officers and communications specialists throughout the government. While they agree that paperwork and the number of obscure or useless reports needs to be reduced, the critics fear that the OMB guidelines are too broad and may inhibit some agencies' production of vital information.
Edwin L. Dale Jr., a spokesman for the budget office, said the guidelines are part of the Reagan administration's efforts to fight government waste. Dale emphasized that agencies such as the Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics and National Center for Education Statistics would be exempted because their mandate is to collect information.
The type of information the OMB wants to restrict, Dale said, includes an Agriculture Department publication explaining the proper way to cook peas, or the routine, computerized tariff filings logged by the Federal Maritime Commission, which he said the shipping industry either could compile for itself or pay the government to compile.
"Any agency that has a statutory mandate to collect information would not be included," Dale said. "The purpose is to weed out the things that seem kind of frivolous."
Dale said the circular is designed to extend, in a permanent way, the campaign the Reagan administration began in 1981 to reduce the volume of unnecessary government publications. At the time, agencies were required to inventory and justify the publications they distributed. Now, by using the authority it has under the Paperwork Reduction Act, the OMB wants to preview agencies' activities in the information field. The budget office action has the support of the Information Industry Association, a group of more than 400 firms that sell information, including The Washington Post Co., The New York Times, Dow Jones and Co. and IBM.
Bob Willard, the group's vice president for government relations, said, "One of our principal concerns is that government agencies will offer an information product almost like a commercial enterprise. Most commercial activities ought to be offered by the private sector. When the government is in there, it often amounts to unfair competition."
He added, "What we see in the circular is not the scary prohibition on information that some people think it is. It will impose a rational decision-making structure" on both the collection and distribution of information, he said, by making agencies meet specific criteria.
But the librarians and the communications specialists are skeptical. The National Association of Government Communicators (NAGC) last week sent a letter to OMB Director David A. Stockman, saying the draft's "restrictive language" would have a "chilling effect" on the free flow of information.
"The fear is that this proposed circular is so broadly worded, it could be interpreted to mean that some of the things agencies now do, they would no longer do," said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for the Merit Systems Protection Board and a member of the NAGC.
Brenda Curtis-Heiken, president of the NAGC, added that, "OMB is proposing across-the-board cuts in information. We're asking OMB to look at each agency on a case-by-case basis."
The new guidelines would "establish a broad mandate for agencies to perform their information activities in an efficient, effective and economical manner." Specifically, the guidelines propose that before agencies begin collecting new information, they "should look first to other agencies and the private sector in order to satisfy their needs."
Agencies should collect information only when "that information is necessary to achieve agency mission objectives," according to the draft of the circular. Once that information is collected, the circular states, "The mere fact that an agency has created or collected information is not itself a valid reason for creating a program to disseminate the information to the public."
Where possible, the guidelines say, agencies should rely on the private sector to distribute the information. And in some cases, the guidelines say, they should charge fees for it.
Curtis-Heiken said, "It's just the beginning of the point where everyone -- from reporters to the general public -- will need to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get anything out of the government."
The government communicators are prohibited by law from lobbying against the OMB circular. They said they will rely on some of their retired members to lobby against the proposal. They have enlisted the help of Rep. Major R. Owens (D-N.Y.), a member of the American Library Association and the only librarian in the House.
Owens has "deep and abiding concerns" about public access to information, according to his legislative counsel, Jean S. Smith-Hoffman.
"It is collected at taxpayers expense, but the taxpayers can't get at it," she said. "They're not publishing a lot of stuff anymore, they're putting a price tag on stuff that used to be free, and they're storing stuff electronically and making it available to large commercial users, while you, I and the general public have to pay for it."
The OMB circular, and the administration's information policies, will be the subject of a hearing Monday before the House Government Operations subcommittee on government information, justice and agriculture.