Planning Ahead to Keep Government Information Online
by Gavin Baker, 1/14/2014
During the October 2013 federal government shutdown, several important public information sources were shuttered, which weakened government transparency during that time. But – short of averting the shutdown itself – could anything have been done differently?
The American people have a right to know about government activities. A government shutdown obviously limits agencies’ ability to answer Freedom of Information Act requests or prepare data for disclosure. The most recent shutdown also curtailed access to some previously disclosed information, as some agencies shut off access to their websites.
In a paper published Jan. 12, Crystal Vicente points to that effect of the shutdown to argue that “the new model of e-government information dissemination is faulty … something must be done to change the lack of orderly preservation of born-digital information.” This shutdown was the first to raise these issues on a large scale, as government websites had only basic information online during the previous shutdowns of 1995 and 1996.
Shutdowns are destructive, and their impacts can be counterintuitive. In advance of the shutdown, the Office of Management and Budget issued guidance instructing agencies to take down websites – even if doing so would be more expensive than leaving them standing. Congress and the administration should examine whether this approach is sensible.
But even if the impacts of a shutdown were mitigated, it would be foolhardy to assume that all online government information will remain accessible in perpetuity. For that reason, both government and non-government institutions plan to preserve public information.
Vicente suggests that government could preserve more of its own online information in order to provide continual public access. In November 2013, several library associations thanked the Government Printing Office (GPO) for keeping its online resources accessible through the shutdown. GPO’s resources include some information originally published by other federal agencies. Even if those agencies had turned off their websites, their information would have remained accessible through GPO. The library groups’ letter encourages GPO to expand its offerings so that additional public information can thus be preserved.
Additionally, Vicente suggests that institutions outside the federal government, such as libraries and archives, can help preserve access to the information. The nonprofit Internet Archive, for example, quickly highlighted its copies of shuttered agency websites during the shutdown. This kind of preservation requires the commitment of non-federal institutions, but the government can support such efforts. For instance, the Sunlight Foundation highlighted steps that agencies can take to facilitate preservation of their public information, such as offering bulk downloads of data.
It’s a big task to regularly make and keep copies of all the various online resources across the entire federal government, and no one can do it alone. The most effective strategy for preserving public information will include both approaches: the government preserving key information itself, while supporting non-federal efforts to provide external copies.
While government shutdowns are a rare event, the same considerations apply in other circumstances, such as when a government project or agency closes its doors. Even if there is never another government shutdown, it’s still important to prepare now so that important public information isn’t lost.