Decision on using persistent cookies coming soon, Fed CIO says

OMB could make a decision by next month on whether or not federal agencies can use persistent cookies on their Web sites

The Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs could make a decision by next month on whether federal agencies can use persistent cookies on their Web sites, an issue that has drawn criticism amid concerns of privacy.

“One of the biggest issues we are going to confront as a society is digital privacy and we want to make sure that we are doing so in a responsible way and not making any rash decisions,” Vivek Kundra, federal chief information officer, told a gathering of government Web managers on April 27.

Responding to a Web manager’s question — that drew huge applause from the audience — about the timeframe for giving agencies permission to use persistent cookies, Kundra said it has taken longer than anticipated to make a decision because the federal government wants to make sure that people’s privacy is protected.

“We are not a year away, but we are literally a month or so away” from making a decision, Kundra said.

Full remarks by Federal CIO Vivek Kundra at Brookings on cloud computing

Persistent cookies let Web sites store certain information about visitors so the site can remember things about them, such as tracking preferences and items purchased or stored in shopping carts.

Last year in a White House blog, Michael Fitzpatrick, associate administrator of that OMB office, said the government was re-examining the prohibition of the use of persistent cookies as part of the Open Government Initiative. He cited changes in Internet technology prompting a need for re-evaluation of the policy. Amid privacy concerns, the government sought feedback through a two-week public comment period.

Kundra spoke on a panel during a morning session at the 2010 Government Web and New Media Conference in Washington sponsored by the General Services Administration. Joining Kundra on the panel titled “Open Government — Making it Real,” were David McClure, associate administrator of the General Services Administration's Office of Citizen Services and Macon Phillips, special assistant to the president and director of new media at the White House.

“Open Government is not an abstract notion,” Kundra told the Web managers. “It leads to better performance and innovation and allows the American people to not be passive, but actually engage in the democratic process.”

Kundra noted how shining the spotlight on agency IT investments via the Federal IT Dashboard on has reduced waste and duplication and improved IT performance.

“What is really interesting is a lot of tips we are getting [about wasteful IT projects] are not coming from the government,” Kundra said. “We’re getting them from the American people through feedback.”

For example, an individual might say it doesn’t make sense that you are spending a $1 billion on this IT project when it seems like you should have done it for one-tenth of the price, he said.

Responding to a question about how agencies should deal with the growing volume of data that they now have to make public to avoid “data-clutter, the White House’s Phillips said there is a difference between data and content.

“If you can design interfaces that make sense, you can provide as much data as you can,” he said. For example, Amazon officials “wouldn’t say lets cut the number of shoes we sell in half because we have too much information — that is not the way it works,” Phillips said.

“You have a huge set of data and you figure out intuitive ways to present it,” Phillips said. That’s the content piece. Government Web managers will play a key role in helping people get the most out of their online experience, he noted.

“We have to put ourselves in the shoes of the citizen that is actually getting online,” GSA’s McClure said. “We have to make sure we put our content in plain language,” he stated, urging the Web mangers to help make Web content clear and concise and visually pleasing.

McClure said that agencies have to be more consistent in measuring performance because each agency does it differently now. He urged agencies to get regular feedback from their customers. Additionally, he urged managers to step out of their agency boxes and look for sensible ways to provide consistency and uniformity across sites government wide.

The morning session also featured a visit by GSA Administrator Martha Johnson — via Skype — who noted that GSA wanted to help the government use new media tools to “push the frontiers of collaboration.” Technology cannot be used for technology sake but must enable people to connect with one another, she said.

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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