GSA sounds false 508 alarm

An April 10 memo labeled "urgent" instructed Web managers at the General Services Administration to begin deleting Internet files that do not meet new accessibility standards. Web sites that fail to meet the standards "will go dark" after June 14, the memo warned.

One GSA worker described the instruction as a "slash and burn" method of complying with a new law that requires government Web sites be made accessible for people with disabilities. Another worker called it "Orwellian logic" to delete files that are inaccessible to some, thus making them inaccessible to all.

An e-mail alarm spread through GSA and beyond, advising that as many as 30,000 Web pages might be headed toward oblivion.

GSA is not instructing its Web managers to delete documents to comply with the new accessibility requirements, said John Sindelar, deputy associate administrator for GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy. The requirements are spelled out in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Sindelar said documents are to be deleted for routine housekeeping. "We are going to take the next two weeks cleaning out old, unused pages," he said in an interview about 3 p.m. April 12.

At 3:32 p.m., Sindelar sent an e-mail to computer network users in the Office of Governmentwide Policy directing that "no one is to talk to the press on 508 (or any other subject) without notifying the Office of Communications first."

Under Section 508, federal agencies have until June 21 to modify their Web sites so that they are accessible to people with impaired vision and hearing and other disabilities.

At GSA, Web managers have an even tighter deadline. "We lit a fire under all of our managers by saying that if they do not have their sites compliant by June 14, they will go dark. But we don't expect any of them to go dark," Sindelar said.

Instead, he said, managers are expected to make their Web sites — including Microsoft Corp. Power-Point presentations and Adobe Systems Inc. Portable Document Format files — accessible.

The memo gave Web managers a different impression, however. "Immediately, please review your program Web sites and start to delete old files. We also have to delete any non-508-compliant files such as PowerPoint presentation and PDF files unless other arrangements have been made," stated the memo by Tokey Bradfield, a Webmaster at the Office of Government-wide Policy.

"Marty wants everybody to delete their old files and non-508-compliant files from the Web site," Bradfield said, invoking the name of Martin Wagner, associate administrator for the Office of Governmentwide Policy. Contract personnel were standing by to assist in 508 compliance, she added.

The Bradfield memo, Sindelar said, was "really a reinterpretation of guidance" issued April 6 by Joseph McKay, chief information officer for the Office of Governmentwide Policy. In his memo, McKay instructed Web content managers to review 31,000 GSA Web pages and eliminate those that are outdated or duplicated.

Although McKay's memo discussed Section 508 compliance, it focused on GSA's plans to move the contents of about 70 Web sites into a GSA Web portal. In a telephone interview April 12, McKay said GSA wants to get rid of old and redundant files so it does not have to transfer them to the portal.

McKay said he expects about 20,000 of the pages to be purged. "People create new content and update pages, and they save the old pages. They're simply there as a safety net. They have accumulated over time."

The accumulation includes such items as papers about best practices that are no longer practiced and slide presentations on policies that have since been changed.

Valuable information won't vanish during the housecleaning or the transfer, McKay promised. Managers who request them will be provided with CD-ROM copies of all pages and files they delete from Web servers. "These CD-ROMs will allow for the rapid recovery of any pages deleted in error," he said.

In addition, GSA maintains "a monthly, 10 percent archive" of its Web sites. "Nothing gets lost," McKay said.

For GSA Web managers, however, the memos have placed new emphasis — and greater anxiety — on Web site accessibility.

Section 508 "has taken on this Y2K, Godzilla-type force," said a GSA mana-ger who asked not to be identified. "I'm worried about 508 compliance. It's going to be a lot of work, and there are not a lot of clear directions."

Section 508 standards fill almost 30 pages in the Federal Register. "I'm looking for a one-page summary," he said.


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