Navigating federal Web sites is hit or miss

Navigating federal Web sites is hit or miss

Robert Gellman

Federal agencies' Web sites continue to improve. For the most part, they are easy to find and have many useful documents. But they are far from perfect, and I would like to share some recent experiences, both good and bad.

Let's start at the top. The White House Web site, at www.whitehouse.gov, has a tough task. It must serve a diverse group of customers, but it doesn't offer a text-only switch for those with slow modems.

It offers a curiously incomplete collection of links to what are referred to as commonly requested federal services. You can link to the Federal Trade Commission but not to the Federal Communications Commission. You can link to the Merchant Marine Academy but not to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point or the U.S. Naval Academy. Even stranger, you can link to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars but not to the Interior Department.

Try to find the Office of Management and Budget. Go ahead. I'll wait. Don't try the obvious, www.omb.gov, because it won't work. The address is www.whitehouse.gov/OMB. The White House site does not offer a visible link to OMB. We ought to be able find OMB more easily.

Letter perfect

The uniform resource locators for federal agencies are mostly intuitive. The Labor Department is at www.dol.gov, the FBI at www.fbi.gov. The acronym usually works, but not always. Take, for example, the Justice Department. Don't try www.doj.gov or even www.justice.gov. The actual URL is www.fbi.gov. Why? Ask the same question at the Treasury Department'the URL there is similar, www.ustreas.gov. At least Treasury can defend its choice because there is no obvious acronym. The Transportation Department uses www.dot.gov.

The IRS can be reached through a link in the Treasury site at www.irs.ustreas.gov, as well as at the more obvious www.irs.gov.

The IRS Web site is getting truly whimsical. When you reach the home page, you are presented with a picture of a mailbox you click on to reach the Digital Daily, a simulated tabloid newspaper. The previous page tells users to 'pour yourself a cup of coffee, open your mailbox, and enjoy today's issue.''

I have a mailbox at the IRS site? I suppose the IRS wants to appear friendly, but this may be too cute. The April 15 countdown clock makes the agency seem a bit too eager, especially in the middle of summer. Maybe the clock should start running in January. Still, the substance at the IRS site is good, so these are just quibbles.

The Commerce Department recently pulled an Internet dirty trick. As part of its ongoing negotiations with the European Union about privacy rules, Commerce prepared a so-called safe harbor document and placed it on the department's Web site. The goal was to solicit comments.

But the safe harbor document was on a Web page that could not be found by clicking or searching. Unless you had the specific URL, the page was completely unavailable. Anyone who managed to locate the page learned why. The request for comments was addressed, 'Dear Industry Representative.'' Commerce apparently did not have much interest in comments from the public.

The Web site of the General Accounting Office, at www.gao.gov, remains highly functional. It offers mercifully few slow-to-load graphics, and it has a good collection of documents.

Amazingly, GAO even entertains research requests. If you can't find what you need through the indexes and finding aids online, a real person will help you. Last year, I was looking for a copy of an old GAO report, but I needed the report number to order it through the Web site. The report predated the online index. I e-mailed the research service for help. Although the site says that responses may take three days, GAO e-mailed me the information I needed in two hours. They even placed an order for a copy of the report on my behalf, and it arrived in the mail two days later.

Now that's service to the citizen!

Site delays

One of my oddest experiences involved the Office of Information and Privacy at Justice. The office publishes a hard copy of an annual guide to the Freedom of Information Act, a text which is also available from Justice's Web site. For last year's guide, I actually had the printed copy before the text was available online. Maybe they couldn't find their own Web site.


Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. His e-mail address is rgellman@cais.com.

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