by William L. Kovacs, ©2023
(Apr. 10, 2023) — The Federal government has left citizens living in information confusion, misinformation and conspiracy theories. Information clutter helps explain why only two in ten Americans trust Washington to do the right thing. But distinguishing between good and bad quality information should never be difficult when the information comes from our government.
There is a U.S. law that mandates that government-disseminated information be accurate and useful and have integrity. The federal government just refuses to abide by the Information Quality Act (IQA), section 515 of the Treasury and General Government Appropriations Act for FY 2001.
The Information Quality Act is designed to foster trust
The IQA requires that the Office of Management of Budget (“OMB”) ensure and maximize “… the quality, objectivity, utility and integrity of information (including statistical information) disseminated by federal agencies.”
In 2002, OMB issued detailed guidelines defining the IQA terms. Information disseminated by the government was to be accurate (precise, complete and unbiased); useful to intended users; and possessing integrity (protected from manipulation). OMB also set forth a correction process for citizens, including experts, to challenge data inaccuracies.
For influential scientific information, there must be a “high degree of transparency about data and methods to facilitate the reproducibility of such information by qualified third parties.” IQA procedures were designed to build trust in government information by following a modified scientific method of testing and reproducibility of data.
Information was defined as “any communication or representation of knowledge such as facts or data, in any medium or form.” Dissemination of information to the public includes agency distribution of information to the public.
While opinions are not covered by the IQA, when it is presenting an opinion instead of information, the agency must clearly identify it as an opinion.
Had IQA guidelines been followed during Covid, for example, the federal government would have provided the public with more useful information.
By not following IQA guidelines during Covid briefings, misinformation and opinion were often presented as fact, without any supporting documentation or without the statement being noted as opinion.
As a result, citizens were forced to live in lockdowns, masks were mandated, schools were closed, causing massive learning losses, and natural immunity was deemed a conspiracy theory. Government agencies issued mandates, but provided little supporting information and never presented what levels of uncertainty were involved.
The Biden administration waffled between Presidential statements that it was seeking evidence-based information on Covid’s origins – and the unequivocal statements of leading scientist Dr. Anthony Fauci, who pronounced that it came from an animal. After several years of delay, the FBI and Energy Department finally informed the public that “the Covid pandemic most likely arose from a [Wuhan] laboratory leak,” not from animals.
This served yet again to highlight the difficulty of believing the federal government.
Federal public guidance consisted of Dr. Fauci communicating inconsistent health-related information. First he told the public, “There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask.” A few weeks later, he supported universal masking. Subsequently, he endorsed double masking.
Then, as independent scientists offered contrary views, Fauci and his boss, Francis Collins, formulated a press strategy to discredit the credibility of their leading critics, by labeling them conspiracy theorists.
Federal misinformation fostered a state of fear. Eventually, state Attorneys General brought a lawsuit over the legality of Fauci’s mask mandates. In depositions, Fauci could not identify any study he relied upon to support his conflicting policy pronouncements. And when asked direct questions about his knowledge of the virus’s origins or tests supporting his conclusions, he said he “could not remember.”
Such misinformation harmed public health. Not surprisingly, a recent Lancet study found that public trust in government is vital to effectively implementing public health measures.
Since its enactment, the federal government refused to implement the IQA.
From the moment OMB issued the IQA guidelines, federal agencies fought to undermine its implementation. Agencies viewed OMB’s guidelines as discretionary. The Department of Justice supported the agencies in court filings.
The public filed lawsuits against agencies to implement the guidelines and correct inaccurate information. These efforts failed. The courts avoided interpreting the substance of the statute, holding that private parties lacked standing to enforce IQA requirements. The federal courts gave agencies complete discretion on the type of information disseminated to the public.
With strong resistance from the federal government, the IQA drifted into obscurity. It is amazing that on something as vital as public health issues, courts failed or refused to recognize that citizens can be directly injured by public health misinformation.
Imagine if federal agencies followed IQA.
If the IQA had been implemented during Covid, federal agencies would have been limited to disseminating only reliable, consistent, reproducible information – or disclose that the agencies did not have supporting data. Under the IQA, “Mr. Science,” Dr. Fauci, would have been required to inform the public that his daily statements were mere opinions. The public would have known the truth, which would have allowed people to seek guidance from knowledgeable health professionals.
Government health misinformation is propaganda. Fortunately, it can be immediately remedied.
Government information permeates all of our society, from healthcare to climate change, nutrition and labor statistics. Good quality information is essential for protecting government agencies themselves, as well as families, businesses, schools, hospitals and society as a whole.
When government presents misinformation or mere personal opinion as the truth, it harms the citizens it has sworn to protect. When agencies present computer models as evidence (or proof) that we face imminent manmade climate disasters, they likewise harm our economy and lives, unless the models’ results are confirmed by real-world observations, measurements or data.
Fortunately, the government misinformation can be immediately remedied. President Biden could today order OMB to implement the statute by reinstating and enforcing the original IQA Guidelines.
Moreover, Congress could codify the 2002 guidelines and clarify that citizens suffer injury when government misinformation harms their ability to protect their health, livelihoods and welfare.
William L. Kovacs is author of Reform the Kakistocracy, winner of the 2021 Independent Press Award for Political/Social Change. He served as senior vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.