Administration to Revamp Federal Web Strategy

6/28/2011

The Obama administration announced on June 13 a plan to retool its approach to federal websites, with an emphasis on consolidating or eliminating sites. Although the plan has the potential to increase transparency, open government advocates are concerned that important information could end up on the chopping block.

In a memo from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients details the administration's plan to improve online services. The memo responds to President Obama's April 27 executive order (E.O.) on customer service, including "improving the design and management of agency websites providing services or information to the public." The administration also couched the plan as part of its Campaign to Cut Waste.

"While many Federal websites provide timely and accurate information and services, many others have redundant, outdated, hard to use, or poorly maintained content," Zients wrote. "This duplication not only can cause confusion, but also wastes taxpayer dollars."

Zients continued, "To simplify access to Federal services, the Government needs a comprehensive and consistent strategy for managing its web resources efficiently and assuring that valuable content is available online and is readily accessible."

The memo tasks Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra with establishing, within 30 days, a task force to update policy for federal websites, including guidelines and best practices.

The administration will instruct agencies on how to improve some sites and eliminate others; by October, agencies will publish their plans for doing so. In the meantime, agencies are not allowed to establish new .gov domains without a waiver from Kundra.

The administration will also post publicly a list of all federal .gov domain names and update the list regularly. The administration is considering how to solicit public feedback on the domains.

The White House has primarily framed the move as a matter of cutting costs. "Most of these cuts we're going to make are small," Vice President Joe Biden said in an e-mail. "However, no amount of waste is acceptable, and these cuts will add up over time."

The White House admits it is difficult even to nail down the precise costs involved. The Energy Department, however, claimed that its web reform efforts had already saved $1 million in the past six months and will ultimately save $10 million per year. Whether comparable savings will be found in other agencies remains unknown.

Despite the focus on cost-cutting, the administration has also claimed that the reforms will result in better service to the public. "The federal government will do more with less, improving how it delivers information and services to the public by reducing the number of websites it maintains," wrote Macon Phillips, White House Director of New Media.

"The Energy Department will need to make new investments in" online communication, wrote Cammie Croft, the Senior Advisor and Director of New Media and Citizen Engagement at the Department of Energy. "The process we are undertaking now will put those efforts on a much better footing … ensuring the American public gets the information they need, while eliminating wasteful spending none of us can afford."

However, open government advocates remain skeptical. "If the administration is going to reduce the number of websites, will they find a home for the information housed by these sites?" asked the Sunlight Foundation's Daniel Schuman.

Micah L. Sifry of the Personal Democracy Forum called the effort "cheap, dumb and cynical" and remarked, "Remember when the White House thought the internet was cool?"

The administration has not addressed the preservation of these sites. "If old sites are to be taken offline have they been archived properly and are URLs going to be redirected to where the material is being archived?" wondered Gary Price on INFOdocket.

Price's concerns could be reinforced by the fact that FiddlinForesters.gov, a website highlighted by President Obama as an example of "pointless waste and stupid spending that doesn't benefit anybody," had been taken down and returned a "not found" response. According to NextGov, the site profiled a group of Forest Service rangers "who sing about ecology, fire safety and the natural beauty of U.S. forests" and was estimated to cost around $125 per year to maintain.

Besides concerns about the loss of existing information, the administration's approach risks deterring efforts to make information newly available online. In comments on the customer service E.O., OMB Watch wrote that agencies should review their existing information services to identify gaps and regularly update websites to add information.