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GPO’s Web Site Offers More Search Options

Computer Magazine Gives Kudos to FDsys

Locating Congressional records has always been hit or miss — some documents come only in print, while others are lost in the annals of unsearchable databases.

But the Government Printing Office is trying to make many federal documents searchable and accessible with a recently launched Web site called FDsys.

Costing $30 million so far, the system includes bills, committee reports, Congressional calendars and other documents as far back as 1994. All of that information has been available for years on the GPO Access site, but a mediocre search engine meant that most of it was hard to find.

FDsys — which stands for the Federal Digital System — appears to be doing much better than its predecessor. It allows users to search by keyword, Member, committee, year, topic and dozens of other criteria. And this week, Government Computer News highlighted FDsys as one of 10 “Great Government Web Sites.—

GPO Access, on the other hand, was cumbersome enough that other agencies and groups created their own narrow search engines for it — one of which is the Library of Congress’ THOMAS.

“For those that were skilled at using the GPO Access site, it was just fine,— Public Printer Robert Tapella said recently. “But for those of us used to Google searches, it was pretty difficult.—

FDsys was launched in February, and GPO officials have been adding information to the site ever since. In the coming months, they hope to add the Congressional Record Index, the Congressional Directory and the History of Bills, among other things.

Tapella said the agency chooses what to put up by its importance and popularity, as well as the difficulty of making an electronic version. Documents before 1994, for example, are more cumbersome and expensive because they didn’t originate electronically.

Some Congressional records are still absent — including the Statement of Disbursements, a document that details how Members spend their office budgets.

The GPO prints House and Senate statements, which are public but only available in large books stored near the Capitol. They include salaries as well as travel and office budgets. In the past, some Members have been apprehensive about posting that potentially controversial information online.

When asked why the statements aren’t included on FDsys, Tapella said that decision is up to Congress.

“We are a disseminator of information for Congress,— he said. “It is Congress who makes the decision of what is published, what is not published and how it is published.—

The House plans to put its quarterly statements online in November. Jeff Ventura, spokesman for the House Chief Administrative Officer, said the difficulty isn’t making the statements available electronically.

Instead, it’s “ensuring that the support is in place— so Members and staffers can answer questions. The CAO’s office is now preparing informational documents and developing a training system for staffers.

Despite this omission from FDsys, however, the system will one day offer a wealth of government documents that are now spread throughout different institutions, if all goes according to plan. The eventual goal, Tapella said, is to “go back through the history of our nation— and put up electronic versions of important records.

Everything put up on the site is also authenticated and stored in an electronic preservation system. Tweaks will be made, Tapella said, but the infrastructure is mostly complete and the work ahead is primarily adding more documents.

It appears as though Congress is ready to provide the money to do so. The House and Senate passed spending bills that include about $7 million for FDsys in fiscal 2010, though the bill has yet to go to conference.

Tapella, at least, is optimistic about the possibilities.

“Congress understands that FDsys is the future,— he said.