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Why Are Federal Web Sites So Bad?

Why Are Federal Web Sites So Bad? Allan Holmes is prompted to ask that rhetorical question in Tech Insider (01/22/09) after reading Megan Mcardle’s blog entry for The Atlantic, Whitehouse.gov gets a makeover.

There’s more on the same subject By Alyssa Rosenberg at GovExec: Beefing Over IT (January 21, 2009).

Mcardle complains that although the new OMB looks much better than the old one, “that sleekness has been achieved by tucking even more of that unsightly information out of the way, where it won’t mar the vista.” Rosenberg wisely notes that cost is one problem — there just isn’t enough money to do everything. But she also says, “Beyond the issue of cost, different agencies require very different IT investments.” In other words, different agencies have different missions and priorities.

In the context of long-term, free access to government information, it is important to mention that few if any have preservation or long-term access as a mission. Search for “preservation” in the GPO Access Act sometime and see how sanguine you feel about GPO replacing libraries for long-term access.

Rosenberg also sees the scale of the problem contributing to the difficulties users face:

That’s not to say that government couldn’t be a lot better. Follies like the Census Bureau’s wasteful handheld contract or the failed Office of Personnel Management retirement calculator contract are a big drain on resources and bad for the government’s reputation. Websites crash under strain. Websites are poorly designed (though that’s often more a matter of aesthetics or IT) or poorly explained. But given the magnitude of the challenges, it’s amazing government IT is in the state it’s in.

I think it worth reading these and the comments they get just to get an idea of the different expectations that people bring to government web sites. Few of them address the Big Questions directly, but, in aggregate, they all do. Most people focus on “Why is it so hard to find the information I want?” and “Why is everything so complex (or ugly, or pretty but uninformative, or…)?

The Big Question, I think, is Who Should Be Responsible for What? Holmes in noting the hard-to-find problem (“[I]t is indeed vary difficult to find many government documents and the most sought after data agencies collect”) refers to one of two papers that address the big question extensively, if not yet definitively:

Brito says:

If government data is made available online in useful and flexible formats, citizens will be able to utilize modern Internet tools to shed light on government activities…. Today, however, the state of government’s online offerings is very sad indeed. Some nominally publicly available information is not online at all, and the data that is online is often not in useful formats. Government should be encouraged to release public information online in a structured, open, and searchable manner.

And Robinson takes this one step further:

Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, we argue that the executive branch should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that exposes the underlying data.

Another way of saying this is what we at FGI have long advocated: Governments should see their primary role as instantiating the information in usable and re-usable formats, and announcing, releasing, and distributing that information. If agencies can also afford to create usable web sites, that’s fine. But, if we can’t rely on agencies to make their information findable and usable today, it is even less likely that we will be able to rely on all agencies always keeping everything we want online. At some point, we will either lose information or the information will be privatized or otherwise no longer available without fees. Agencies should make sure the information is available first and worry about their web sites second.

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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