Commitment Analysis: Administration Pledges, Again, to Update Nine-Year-Old Website Policy

The following is cross-posted, with permission, from the Center for Effective Government

Attentive readers of the administration’s 2nd Open Government National Action Plan will notice a familiar commitment related to reforming government websites.

Here’s the administration’s first plan, from September 2011:

We will reform the seven-year-old policy that governs the management, look and feel, and structure of Federal Government websites to make them more useful and beneficial for the public.

Compare the administration’s new plan, released Dec. 6:

[Our] efforts will include revising and updating OMB policies for Federal Agency websites in 2014.

The repeated commitment might give the appearance that the administration failed to make progress on federal websites. Despite appearances, however, the administration has accomplished much in this area over the past two years. Nonetheless, the update to the (now nine-year-old) website policy remains a useful next step.

History

The policy in question is Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Memorandum M-05-04, entitled “Policies for Federal Agency Public Websites.” The memo provides guidance on required content and standards for agency websites. But, as one might expect, the 2004 memo has become outdated, given the rapid changes in online technology over the past decade. Although there has been significant progress in making some federal websites more user-friendly, other sites remain challenging to use.

The administration’s commitment in the first National Action Plan built off efforts begun earlier in 2011 to improve federal websites. Then in May 2012, the White House took an important step issuing the Digital Government Strategy, which focused on more fundamental issues related to the design and management of government IT than on the content of public-facing websites.

By May 2013, that strategy had spawned a new executive order focusing on data management and access. Like the Digital Government Strategy, the data policy lays a framework that could make it easier for agencies to disclose additional information online in more useful formats. But it doesn’t address standards for websites or replace the 2004 memo.

In the civil society evaluation of the first National Action Plan, we noted, “The administration has not replaced the OMB memorandum yet. But doing so remains a clear deliverable of their digital strategy and OMB made a public statement explaining that the updated memorandum had been delayed and should be out in early 2013.” Meanwhile, the administration’s self-assessment claimed that the commitment was “completed and expanded through the issuance of the Digital Government Strategy.”

During the development of the administration’s second National Action Plan, we recommended that the administration again commit to replacing M-05-04. “There is a need for an increased emphasis on the usability of online disclosure tools, such as databases and apps, as accessing online government information remains a frequently frustrating experience,” we argued. The administration seems to have adopted our advice in its second National Action Plan. Perhaps the problems with Healthcare.gov helped motivate the administration to pursue broader website policy reform.

What Will the New Policy Say?

Now that the administration has re-committed to update the policy, the next question is: what will be in it?

One possible approach is that the new policy will largely consolidate previously-issued policies, such as the Digital Government Strategy and data policy, as well as the 2009 Open Government Directive and other issuances related to federal websites. Simply compiling the numerous existing policy documents into a more coherent and long-lasting format could encourage greater compliance. A commitment to routinely update the policy going forward, similar to some OMB circulars which are revised regularly, could help the policy keep pace with changes in technology.

The policy might also institute new requirements aimed at improving federal websites. The policy could expand standards for information agencies must post on their websites, in order to strengthen transparency. The policy could also institute best practices for usability of websites and online information, building off the progress that some agencies have made with the goal to scale better websites across the executive branch.

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