Government webmasters need lots of wiggle room

Hey, agency webmasters, are
oversight agencies going to start hopping onto your back?


The Justice Department recently issued guidance for managers of federal Web sites. The
guidelines cover the implementation of the Electronic Freedom of Information Act.


Last November was the deadline for implementation of most of the act’s provisions.
Six particular agencies may wish that Justice had been more prompt in issuing their
recommendations; they were sued by the Naderite group Public Citizen for delay in
implementing E-FOIA.


The recommendations themselves are useful but unremarkable revelations. Mostly they
enumerate commonsense methods for meeting the requirements of E-FOIA. The most interesting
aspect of the recommendations is that they are a precursor of what is to come.


The executive and legislative branches have discovered that the Web is a valuable tool
for getting things done.


But legislators and oversight officials have also discovered that agencies have a range
of interest and experience in Web site design. To ensure that all federal agencies meet a
minimum level of compliance, oversight agencies have taken to issuing guidelines such as
the E-FOIA recommendations from Justice. This is only the beginning.


Changing an agency home page may someday literally take an act of Congress. Like it or
not, webmasters should expect congressional and regulatory mandates on their precious home
page designs.


For example, at the top of Justice’s list is a mandatory E-FOIA link on the agency
home page. To achieve uniformity across agencies, Justice prescribes the wording
associated with the link.


Justice’s recommendations list the required documents and collections appearing in
the legislation. Webmasters are not known for their casual perusal of the Congressional
Record or the U.S. Code, so such checklists are quite necessary.


E-FOIA page characteristics are the next subject of the guidelines. Justice suggests a
link back to the agency home page as well as links to other agency E-FOIA pages. In one
draft, Justice asked agencies to link to their regular FOIA pages—another reasonable
recommendation.


Finally, Justice requests that agencies check their links, link descriptions and
documents regularly. This is a basic responsibility of any webmaster, but it’s all
too often neglected. Maintenance is not as sexy as development, so resources are usually
biased toward the latter—at least until someone important complains.


To make it easy for visitors to complain, I suggest specifically prepared e-mail links
for the Web site. E-mail links are not appropriate to stick into primary documents unless
they were in the original document. But pages pointing to such documents should have
e-mail links directly to the page author. If a page I have written is broken, I want to be
the first to hear about it. I immediately reply with heartfelt thanks and do my best to
fix the error promptly.


Visitors appreciate the opportunity to contribute, and I do not have to conduct
time-consuming reviews of the thousands of Web pages I have written. It’s a win-win
situation.


The Justice recommendations are brief, reasonable and consistent with the requirements
of the E-FOIA program. Although experienced webmasters may find them rather basic, the
recommendations cover the essentials for meeting E-FOIA. Oversight officials contemplating
similar instructions for other mandates would do well to follow Justice’s example.


For all the proposed agency Web requirements floating around, no one has proposed one
for defining exactly what an agency home page is. The technical definition might be the
default page of the root directory of the Web service on the host computer, assigned at
the root domain server for the agency.


In other words, for agency XYZ, the home page would be www.xyz.gov where www indicates
the Web service for the xyz.gov domain. The Web server on that host would serve up a
Hypertext Markup Language file matching the default characteristics of that server.


Although most agencies follow this approach, some have adopted new domain names or
employ multiple domain names.


The only really consistent meaning of home page is a Web page that an organization
advertises as an entry point to its Web site. One hopes that Congress and the oversight
agencies will leave this semantic challenge alone.  


Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal
information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.cpcug.org/user/houser.

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