Under Guise of Information 'Quality,' a New Hurdle to Sensible Safeguards
In December 2000, Congress passed a two-paragraph provision buried deep in an appropriations bill that required agencies to ensure and maximize the quality of information that they disseminate, and to establish an error-correction process. The provision gave the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) the power to issue guidelines to agencies about how to implement the requirement.
The provision’s provenance was of particular interest. It had never been the subject of hearings, committee review or debate. Rather, it was inserted into the appropriations bill by Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) at the behest of Jim Tozzi, a former OMB-official who runs the corporate sponsored Center for Regulatory Effectiveness. Most of Members of Congress voted on the bill without knowing of the provision’s existence.
The provision, known both as the Data Quality Act and the Information Quality Act – the confusion over naming stems from its never having undergone the legislative process to begin with – required OMB and federal agencies to establish procedures to ensure the quality of information disseminated by government, a worthy enough goal on its face. But the requirements have also introduced an important side effect: they slow down the government’s capacity to act.
While no one would have the government rely on unreliable or poor quality information, there is an important distinction between uncertain science and poor quality data. For example, an excellent study of the adverse health effects of heightened blood lead levels may be incomplete in the sense that it does not definitively indicate the hazards to the public exposure to lead. This scientific uncertainty results from the fact that the rates of transfer between airborne lead and blood lead are poorly understood by scientists. The way in which OMB implemented the IQA seemed to permit regulated entities to attack such scientific uncertainty as a data quality problem under the IQA.
In the years since the adoption of the provision, regulated industries sought to use it to lob a challenges at government regulators. For example, in January 2005, CPR Scholars Robert Verchick, Rena Steinzor, and Sidney Shapiro, joined by CPR Policy Analyst Margaret Clune, called on EPA to take a series of steps to protect the health of East Baton Rouge-area residents whose food supply has been poisoned by PCB pollution in the Devil's SwampLake. Among industry's many efforts to avoid taking responsibility for cleaning up its mess: an Information Quality Act challenge. Read more.
That said, the Information Quality Act never realized the potential that industry groups had in mind for it. As Shapiro writes:
[T]he IQA has not turned into the anti-regulatory tool that was originally anticipated. For one thing, the Bush Administration was so friendly to industry preferences that the IQA turned out to be largely unnecessary for companies or trade associations to gain their objectives. Further, the courts have held that an agency’s disposition of an IQA complaint is not judicially reviewable. This means a company or industry group cannot ask the courts to overturn an agency when it rejects a complaint that data is not reliable. Thus, the Obama administration can reject any such complaints, assuming that they are unwarranted, without fear of being overruled by the courts.
Read CPR Member Scholars’ work on the Information Quality Act:
A CPR Perspective. Read Sidney Shapiro's CPR Perspective, Data Quality, updated July 2009.
ELI Article. Read Sidney Shapiro's "Case Against the Information Quality Act," The Environmental Forum (the policy journal of the Environmental Law Institute), July/August 2005. (Posted by permission.)