Agency home pages getting out of hand

With a gold-rush fever, federal agencies have hastened headlong to create home pages on the World Wide Web. Proud as peacocks, they show off their wares - all kinds of sexy graphics, color pictures and hyperlinks to many a wonderful thing.

The trouble is that a lot of agency home pages are filled with electronic junk mail. Once again, we have government functionaries deciding what's good for us while scarcely bothering to consult their information users in the public. These benevolent despots have a few lessons to learn.

First of all, the rest of the world does not live in an environment of 1.5 megabit/sec T-1 Internet connections. You may think we're all dying to see a color photo of your agency head, but you're wrong - especially if we have to wait five minutes for the blasted thing over our 14.4 kilobit/sec or 28.8 kilobit/sec modems.

Photos of agency luminaries are a perfect example of the kind of home page content that makes the home page author popular inside the agency but that, frankly, the public couldn't care less about. If you must put in the photo, make it small.

But more importantly, right at the top of your home page, you need to put a prominent button that allows the user to skip the graphics altogether. And make sure the user is able to skip the graphics on all subsequent pages as well.

Second, do a home page properly or don't do it at all. It is frustrating to link into pages that are "under construction." Heaven knows when you'll finish construction. Don't bother telling us you've got a page under construction; just put it up when it's ready for public consumption and forget about the teaser messages.

Third, is anyone out there asserting any quality control over what goes up? It's hard to believe that even agencies read some of the garbage they stick on their home pages.

While browsing recently, I actually encountered the F-word on a federal agency Web page. Larger agencies seem to exert no editorial control over their component units; it's hit-or-miss whether the many home pages in a big agency even link to one another.

Agencies also need provisions for removing or refreshing home page postings when they grow stale.

If several components of an agency post the same information, is anyone exercising version control to make sure there is consistency among the postings?

And what about a connection between the agency home page and the Government Information Locator Service? Clearly, in many cases, the people who constructed the agency GILS are not talking to the people who devised the home pages.

Many agencies have now created documents that purport to be standards or guidelines for how their components should create home pages. This effort is laudable but so far falls short of the mark.

My favorite example of agency home page myopia is records management and the Web. People tell us they've achieved a historic first for their agency when they create a home page and offer their wares electronically. Well, if it's of historic importance, what provisions has the agency made for preserving its home page content as an official record?

I've looked at a lot of agency guidelines for Web pages, including the ones proferred by the National Science Foundation. So far, I have yet to find any mention of the fact that Web postings might be official government records worthy of preservation or find any suggestion that agencies need to keep track of what they post.

The other shoe will drop for agency home pages when someone hauls an agency into court for some indiscretion or outright illegality posted on an agency home page, and the agency discovers it has not bothered to keep any record of what went up on its Web site.

If an agency is incapable of reconstructing exactly what appeared on its home page, how could it possibly be prepared to cope with questions of legal liability?

And by the way, if your agency keeps records of who visits the site and/or submits comments, your agency is creating individually identifiable records subject to the Privacy Act. Yes, electronic-mail addresses constitute individually identifiable information. You need a Privacy Act statement somewhere in your home page to inform the public of just what uses you are making of the personal information you capture.

My advice to agency home page authors is to regularly test out the content and format of the home page with users outside, as well as inside, the agency before putting up the home page and afterward as well.

The National Performance Review encourages user surveys to measure how well agencies are serving the public. Home pages are devices specifically intended to deliver information services to the public. Are you measuring how well your agency home page is doing its job?

**

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates, Washington, D.C. He can be reached via the Internet at jtsprehe@intr.net. This column can be read on FCW's home page at http://www.fcw.com.

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