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Putting Citizens First: Transforming Online Government

A report by the Federal Web Managers Council provides some useful suggestions about how to make government information more useful.

Among their findings and suggestions:

There are approximately 24,000 U.S. Government websites now online (but no one knows the exact number).

Only a minority of agencies have developed strong web policies and management controls. Some have hundreds of “legacy” websites with outdated or irrelevant content.

We have too much content to categorize, search, and manage effectively, and there is no comprehensive system for removing or archiving old or underused content.

Agencies should be required and funded to conduct regular content reviews, to ensure their online content is accurate, relevant, mission-related, and written in plain language. They should have a process for archiving content that is no longer in frequent use and no longer required on the website.

The report solicits comments, so I wrote the following to one of the co-chairs, Sheila Campbell:


Ms. Campbell,

I am writing to comment on and make a suggestion for

Putting Citizens First:  Transforming Online Government A White Paper Written for  the 2008 – 2009 Presidential Transition Team by  the Federal Web Managers Council,  November 2008 http://www.usa.gov/webcontent/documents/Federal_Web_Managers_WhitePaper.pdf

May I suggest that, as you work with Federal Web Managers and with Congress for information dissemination requirements, that you keep in mind two things:

1. Long-term preservation and usability of and access to even “out of date” government-created information is essential in a democracy. (We need an accurate *record* of government, not just a snapshot of what is current.)

2. The *primary* information role of the government is the creation and initial communication of information; government agencies will need help to ensure long-term preservation of information. (Agencies may cease to exist, or get merged with other agencies, or change their missions, or simply lack funding for providing long-term access to older information. Even the National Archives does not have a mandate to preserve everything that needs to be preserved.)

In keeping these two assumptions in mind, I suggest you promote two simple procedures:

1. Agencies should always, at the time information products are created, instantiate their information in open, preservable, formats (e.g., not proprietary, commercial formats).

2. Agencies should always publicly announce and describe information products and make their digital information available through the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) and the Government Printing Office (GPO), where appropriate.  GPO and the more than 1000 FDLP libraries can help preserve your digital information and keep it available for the long-term.

Finally, I realize that the day-to-day requirements of e-government and creating reliable transaction-based information services for citizens may seem to conflict with the long-term  usability requirements of instantiating information in preservable, open formats.  But there are successful models of doing both. For example, the Census Bureau makes its statistical information available through a transaction-based service (American Factfinder (http://factfinder.census.gov/), while, at the same time making its raw data available in an operating-system-neutral, software-neutral format for researchers.  There are many archivists and librarians and technical experts who can help agencies with these issues.

Thank you for your thoughtful report. I hope these comments help.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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