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Government Information on the Internet and Internet Committees

Kerry Webb is the Director, Digital Library Projects at the National Library of Australia, a position which he moved to recently after having been the Director of Systems for 10 years. He first started using the Internet early in 1992 and writes a monthly column on the Net in the magazine of the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA). He has set up Web pages for ALIA and the Australian Electoral Commission, and is responsible for the Government pages on the National Library's server.

Governments' attitude to the Internet varies from country to country and from time to time. Some have embraced it eagerly, some have been more wary, others have tried to inhibit its spread (almost always unsuccessfully). And I don't have to tell you that governments' official attitudes aren't always disseminated unchanged through their various agencies. And even in agencies, some areas will have different attitudes to others.

So it's hard to be exact about what governments are doing, and we'll have to settle for generalities and some examples. What they should be doing though, is a different matter, in my not so humble opinion. In this presentation, I'll suggest why the Internet offers many opportunities to government, what they can do about this, and how they can overcome the barriers that they'll find along the way.

If you accept that governments have a duty to communicate with their constituents in a cost-effective way, then the Internet is one way of doing that. (If you don't accept that, we have real problems). It's not the only way, because the vast majority of Australians (and for that matter) citizens of the world don't have Net access and won't for some time, but it can reach a lot of people. The big question with the use of the Internet is what information should be distributed on it, and in what manner.

The most simple information that can be put on the Net (and I'll be using the example of World Wide Web pages throughout, as this is the most common publishing medium at present) is information about the agency, and what it does, and how to get in touch with its officers. Most organisations are doing this, to a greater or lesser extent. They usually include a broad structure of the organisation on the Home Page, with links to more detailed information. Portfolio departments are beginning to have links to pages featuring their Ministers, with pictures and biographical information, and also to the agencies (statutory authorities, government business enterprises, major committees) which have established their own pages.

Beyond this first stage of information, agencies are starting to use the Net as a real publishing medium, putting public policy documents up for all to see, and possibly saving some money by having smaller print runs for the paper versions. In the past year, there have been two interesting examples of this. When the Government's Creative Nation document was released in October last year, it came out as a high quality paper product. Someone had the good idea after it was published that it could be scanned and the text put up on a Web server, except that they highly artistic colour of the paper made scanning difficult. I then approached the people at the Department who had produced it, and got a floppy disk containing the text in Microsoft Word format, which we then converted to HTML form and mounted on the NLA Web server . All this happened within a week of the initial publication.

With the 1995 Commonwealth Budget, it was a different story. For a couple of months before the Budget was presented in May, planning went on in a number of agencies to have the Budget papers available on Web servers on Budget night. This required cooperation between various departments including Finance and the Treasury, the Australian Government Publishing Service, and the Library. To spread the load, the documents were provided on two servers - at the National Library and at the Department of Administrative Services. The results were impressive, with over a thousand accesses on the night of the Budget, and several thousand from all over the world in the following weeks.

There's no doubt that we'll see more of this in the future, as people become more aware of what can be done on the Net. For the Federal by-elections for Canberra and Wentworth earlier this year, we set up Pages on the NLA server for the Australian Electoral Commission with lists of candidates and details of polling booths, and results after the date of the elections. Something similar was done for the Queensland State election a couple of weeks ago, although at short notice and few people would have been aware of it. Nevertheless it was well done, and will set the standard for the future where we can expect this to be a major source of information about elections.

Another major type of information bound for the Net is press releases. While this means of distribution will not replace others, there are benefits for journalists and researchers in being able to find a collection of these in one place. A good example is on the Environment, Sport and Territories server.

Yet another type of information is that which supports commercial operations of agencies. From the National Library's catalogue of greeting cards to the more sophisticated plans of the Australian Government Publishing Service to use the Net as a means of ordering selected government publications, this is being taken seriously, and while there is a certain amount of concern about use of credit cards on the Net, there are very significant developments throughout the world in encrypting transactions of this type and we can expect much more commercial activity to be taking place in the future.

So this is the sort of information going up on Web servers for government agencies. But there are a few problems that we still need to address.

The first is the resistance on the part of many organisations to take part in such an enterprise. Fortunately this is being overcome, but not universally. Most Internet initiatives have started not at the top, nor in the IT branch, but from pockets of interest throughout the agencies. Top management has in most cases not been aware of the Internet until recently, and directives to get started on it have not flowed readily. This is changing, especially when they can see their competitors (colleagues) getting some credit for what they may be doing in this area.

The resistance from IT is also quite interesting. Mention the Internet to most IT people and they get very nervous and talk about "SECURITY". I don't know if this is more a factor of the innate conservatism of computer professionals or the overriding concern that all public service employees have of keeping their names off the front pages of papers or out of Auditor-General's reports. In any case, it's not something to be proud of, as IT managers in general have adopted the attitude of hoping that the Internet will go away rather than recognising it as a great opportunity to serve their users as long as they can provide reasonable security to agency systems.

Then there's the problem of finding information once it's been loaded. This is without doubt the biggest problem that the Internet faces. There is so much information available, that it's impossible to know the location of all of it. The best that we can do (and I speak of the library and information services community) is to develop indexes, catalogues and various finding tools so that there is some way that the average user can get a lead on the information that's been mounted.

This has been done in the general field of information by a series of automated and human-powered indexes, notably Lycos and Yahoo. Through each of these you can get to a range of government information, but not directly. In Australia, we've done what most other governments have, in setting up a service which points to a whole range of information for the country.

Our Whole of Government Page has pointers to pages for Federal, State and Local government information, as well as to a subject index to all government information, to policy documents from Australia and other countries on information infrastructure matters, and to information about major conferences on infrastructure topics. The Commonwealth Government Page lists departments (both parliamentary and portfolio departments) and agencies, plus various hot topics, such as the budget or the Prime Minister's speech on the Republic.

Actually, this is not the only pointer to Australian government information. At present, the Office of Government Information and Advertising (OGIA) is doing something similar to the Library, but their charter is to distribute Commonwealth Government information, and they are using the Internet to do this. Their pages have more information than the Library's because all that we are trying to do is to point at agencies' servers, expecting that the agencies will include on their own pages the necessary information to explain what their roles and services are. OGIA is doing more than this because they choose to do so. We, on the other hand are providing simple pointers to government servers, as we believe that this gives a better service to our users.

We also point to state and local government servers. In a couple of states (Victoria and Tasmania), they are well organised, and there are state government agencies who have assumed the responsibility of maintaining the list of sites in their states, but in the others the National Library continues to maintain separate lists.

Other countries have handled this in slightly different ways. In the US, there are two significant lists, Fedworld based on a subject index and Fedix a list of servers. Canada, the UK and New Zealand have all developed services comparable to the Australian model, except that the Canadians have continued to experiment and have come up with some very exciting facilities. Other governments such as Poland and Belgium are doing similar things. A good list of government servers can be found in the Yahoo Government index.

In compiling new entries on the lists and indexes, you can rely on some people to give you the information about their new services, but you also have to check the major Australian Web indexes regularly to see if new Government servers have been notified to them. Currently, the best of these is the Annotated Australian Address Book maintained by ozInternet. It features a section for new servers, and appears to rely on server managers to notify ozInternet about new servers. The other major index is David Green's Australian WWW Servers Page. I've found the Address Book to be a better site for my purposes because the new servers are listed under categories such as 'Government'.

Of course, having put the information up you need to promote it. Services such as Yahoo and the Australian lists invite submissions, but others do their own searching. The National Library's Government pages were recently honoured by told by Apple Computer that we were being included in the Government Hall on their eWorld site.

The final problem that I'd like to talk about with government information is continuity. Especially in the early days of putting information on the Internet, it was a matter of an enthusiast collecting information, formatting it and mounting it on a server. Often this led to a permanent service, often it did not. Some of these enthusiasts were told to get on with other work, some of them left to go to other jobs, some just lost their enthusiasm. The results were that many promising services stagnated or disappeared, despite the fact that services all over the world continue to point to them.

In the paper-based world, you have the artefact, even if the publisher went bust. On the Net, are you prepared to check every link on your server? Regularly? What this means is that before you put in an important link, you should be pretty sure that the other site will continue to maintain that information indefinitely. In government terms, you can be sure that someone will continue to perform a particular function (although that someone may not be in the public sector) but if there are major changes to government departments following some future election, we'll have a bit of work to do in changing the links, and maybe setting up an authority file for previous names of services.

All of these matters bring me to the last part of my presentation - the committees which are guiding the Internet developments in Australian governments. The most important is the Commonwealth State Internet Working Party (CSIWP) which was established by the Government Telecommunications and Technology Conference (GTTC) in September 1994. Its aim is to develop a consistent approach across the Governments of Australia for the presentation and placement of Government information on public networks such as the AARNet/Internet.

Members of the CSIWP have been encouraged to set up in their jurisdictions groups to carry on this work, and nearly all have done so. In the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth Internet Reference Group (CIRG) has emerged, and meets every two months. A page of Guidelines has been set up to keep members of CSIWP and CIRG abreast of developments in Australian and overseas, so that they can offer more coherent services to their clients. There are different levels of compliance with these guidelines in different agencies and states, and some coordinating agencies have tried in a heavy-handed way to control what others do, despite the infectious anarchy of the Net. Despite this, there have been significant developments at all levels of government in making useful information available in a very effective manner.

Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 26 July 1995
Prepared by: Tim Sherratt
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 25 February 1998

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