Federal Website Reform Efforts Moving Forward

The Obama administration's reform of federal websites moved forward yesterday, but without shedding much light on what impact the effort will have on open government. The effort, which was launched in a June 13 memo from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), is meant to cut costs while improving service.

Yesterday, the administration met its 30-day deadline to publish a list of existing .gov domain names and establish a task force to recommend updates to federal website policy. The administration has been laudably open about this process, including soliciting public comments on the list, hosting a chat on the effort, and promising to engage the public with the task force.

Websites are a major component of the how government communicates with the public. Because public communication is so central to many of government's important tasks, ensuring that government websites are user-friendly, current, accessible, and standards-compliant is vital to making government not only more transparent, but also more effective and efficient. If the administration's review of website policy is thoughtful, it could go a long way in advancing those goals.

Certainly, there's lots of room for improvement in the design and management of federal websites. For instance, consolidating servers offers the potential to reduce hosting costs and energy usage while improving security. Common design elements across sites could aid navigation and help users recognize when they are visiting a government website, as with Canada's Common Look and Feel policy. The administration should also consider expanding the standards of information that every agency should proactively post online. So far, the administration's effort seems interested in exploring such opportunities.

But the message is mixed when it comes to preserving existing information that the administration no longer considers a priority. Responding to a question from the Sunlight Foundation's Daniel Schuman during the chat, Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra replied that the task force would "[make] sure that no records are lost as we migrate or consolidate these websites." But later Kundra stated, "if people aren't coming to a website and we're spending a lot of money … we're going to shut those websites down."

Without careful attention, those statements are on a collision course. The situation is all the more precarious because the state of electronic records management is so shaky. A 2010 survey by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) found that less than a third of agencies had scheduled records on their website for preservation. To ensure that valuable information isn't lost in the shuffle, the task force will need to give due consideration to records management as well as a more robust strategy of web archiving.

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