Federal Web sites: half-cocked snapshots

The outgoing Clinton administration managed to leave a sour taste in everyone's mouth with its last-minute order to take snapshots of federal Web sites in the final week before President Bush's inauguration.

Lewis Bellardo, deputy archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration, issued a memo Jan. 12 to federal chief information officers instructing them to preserve a one-time snapshot of their public Internet offerings by Jan. 20. The snapshot initiative was intended to "ensure that we are able to document, at least in part, agency use of the Internet at the end of the Clinton administration," according to the memo. Agencies had 60 days to forward the snapshot to NARA.

Because of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, most CIOs and agency records officers did not see the memo until Jan. 16, giving them four days to comply with the directive. To say that agencies went ballistic over this cockamamie instruction is a dramatic understatement.

The snapshot initiative bore the marks of great haste, demonstrating little forethought. A week later, NARA was still playing catch-up on technical matters by issuing more clarifying instructions and hinting at still more to come.

Web sites of larger agencies amount to tens of thousands of pages. A drop- everything snapshot could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even a small agency estimated that hundreds of man-hours would be necessary to comply.

The Bellardo memo contained an attachment giving technical guidelines for the snapshot. Agencies were to terminate all external links within their Web sites, another labor-intensive exercise. Some agency Webmasters said that the technical specifications were obsolete and that they would have to retro-engineer their technology to comply. Others waited for Jan. 20 to pass, hoping the requirement would just go away. It didn't.

Given all the other troubles facing NARA, it is unfortunate that the agency was forced to bear the brunt of rank-and-file anger over the snapshot initiative. A Jan. 17 follow-up memo identified the real culprit, the Office of Management and Budget. And since the timing was so close to the Clinton administration's demise, this foolishness probably traces directly to the White House itself.

Let not this incident denigrate the importance of records management for agency Web sites. I co-wrote one of a few studies on the subject — keeping track of site content in the age of electronic government is critically important. Unfortunately, much confusion surrounds the issue, compounded in part by the fact that information technology professionals and federal records managers use the term "record" in different ways.

Good records management for agency Web sites can be a simple and straightforward matter, once you think it through. But it does take planning. Going off half-cocked at a moment's notice to record every page on a site is the wrong way to approach the matter. n

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

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