EPA Reports on Info Access 'Listening' Sessions

February 11, 2009

EPA, even under President Bush, made some efforts in recent years to meet the public's information needs. While EPA brass clashed with Congress and journalists over secrecy and suppression of science, the agency's Office of Environmental Information (OIA) was holding "listening" sessions on what kind of information the agency's customers (including journalists) want and need.

EPA conducted a "National Dialogue" to develop an "Information Access Strategy" during the spring of 2008. Now summaries of the "listening sessions" that were part of it are online. The project was led by then-Assistant Administrator of the OIA, Molly A. O'Neill.

The sessions included many sectors — industry, librarians, states, and journalists among them.

The EPA "Information Access Strategy" was released in January 2009, during the last days of the Bush administration. While the strategy's recommendations may be somewhat tame if unobjectionable, the listening sessions may provide a record that the incoming Obama administration can use and build on.

Here are some verbatim quotes from the session held with journalists (full disclosure: the WatchDog attended this session and was quite vocal).

"EPA requires the media to first contact the Press Office to obtain desired environmental information. However, it is not uncommon for press officers to not know detailed answers to technical questions, or be able to immediately provide contact information for EPA staff able to address a particular issue. The media representatives noted that a good model is the U.S. Geological Survey press office, which provides quick, on-line responses from Agency scientists. The media representatives recommend that the EPA Press Office maintain a list of "pre-cleared" experts on various environmental issues and refer the media to the appropriate experts."

"The media representatives find that the press office will not receive phone calls, preferring to communicate by email. However, the press office doesn't always respond to the media's inquiries. One media representative noted that FBI staff meet with him to explain the basic information he needs but he cannot receive similar assistance from EPA staff."

"The media representatives stated that they would like EPA to provide more effective notification of EPA events. Other agencies (e.g., the Department of Justice) send daily or weekly emails describing scheduled agency speeches and activities. However, one media representative said he has to read Inside EPA to find out what is happening at the Agency. Another representative said that the few emails he does receive are often irrelevant to him, and another noted that she cannot figure out how to get on the press list."

"Some information is available only through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which often takes too long for reporters on deadline. The media representatives wonder why certain information, such as EPA correspondence with Congress, cannot be made public."

"Pretty immediate access to people is very important. If I call someone in the morning and they don't call back until the afternoon, that's a problem. It is useless if you don't hear from them until the next day. Several years ago you could walk around EPA and chat with people in their offices."

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