Sprehe: OMB's policy needs help

The pablum of a Web site policy was yesterday's news several years ago

The Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) recently issued "Policies for Federal Agency Public Web sites," guidance that represents a big step backward.

The pablum OIRA serves as Web site policy was yesterday's news several years ago.

Hello, OIRA! Did you ever hear of evaluation? How about telling agencies to institute programs for evaluating their Web sites to see whether the sites are doing the jobs they are intended to do? If Web sites are so important to citizen-centered government, surely it is not too much to ask that agencies evaluate their effectiveness.

Hello, OIRA! Read OMB Circular A-11, especially the part about performance plans and performance measures. Did it occur to you to require that agencies devise performance goals and measurements for Web sites? Such measures provide valuable information about how the Web site is performing relative to overall agency goals. Officials can get feedback from users and use the information to improve the Web site. OIRA's Web policy seems unaware of this.

Web sites are tools for the performance of agency missions and the conduct of programs. It is reasonable to ask for performance measurements and evaluation of these tools to determine whether they are helpful or a hindrance, but OIRA's policy does not do so.

Hello, OIRA! Do you recall the Government Information Locator Service (GILS)? Although apparently forgotten, the service is still an operative section of the Paperwork Reduction Act, which OIRA administers. Where does GILS fit into OMB's Web site policy guidance? Nowhere, it seems.

When the act was last amended in 1995 and GILS was added as Section 3511, National Archives and Records Administration officials produced a set of core elements or metadata for GILS. Why doesn't OIRA address the use of agency-standardized metadata as an important aid to help the public find information on government Web sites?

Telling agencies to include a search function, as the policy does, is no help. OIRA will have a hard time finding a single agency Web site that does not already include a search function — a clear indicator this policy is outdated.

The smarter agencies recognize that search engines alone will not find information with precision. Unless an agency uses standard metadata elements in its Web site, members of the public will get many imprecise hits when searching for information. President Bush's executive order on sharing terrorism information, issued last August, recognizes the need for metadata to increase search precision.

It is nice that OMB finally issued a Web site policy, but it is sad that the policy is so far behind today's public information needs.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@jtsprehe.com.

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