How to handle sites' teen years

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Departmental inspectors general reviewed agency Web sites in April to determine whether agencies had stopped using permanent cookies and if they were prominently displaying a privacy statement link.

Most federal Web sites were found to be in compliance with both federal directives, and it's my understanding that most Webmasters of the small number of non-conforming sites were unaware of their status and appreciated the feedback.

However, the most striking fact discovered in the survey was that many agencies do not have an inventory of their Web sites.

When the World Wide Web was new and equipment easily obtained, offices outside headquarters were encouraged to get connected. Conducting business via e-mail and the Web improved productivity and, in many instances, helped agencies maintain a level of service while staff reductions were under way — enabling them to do more with less.

The Web grew by leaps and bounds, like a gangly child.

Now, a few departments are entering the teenage years of Web operations. They have achieved a level of experience and discipline that guides development.

While rapid growth fueled by enthusiasm expanded the Web, reports such as the IG studies can bring awareness of the need for feedback as this still-new system of communication stumbles its way into and through the teen years.

Even if you don't know the number and location of all the Web sites in your agency and you don't know who is programming and posting to each site, it's not too late for Webmasters and information technology personnel to address the problem. But such an inventory must be accomplished.

Another aspect of the growing maturity of Web sites is accessibility. The oft-mentioned June 21 deadline for full compliance with Section 508 is a mere few weeks away. In some agencies, policy leaders are not fully on board, delaying consideration of changes to Web pages. Nevertheless, staff members must forge ahead with Section 508 compliance.

I believe that in many instances, any design agencies put online is likely to be changed. Some Webmasters tell me that they plan a basic, easily navigable Web site and then they'll build on it as experience and feedback dictate.

If you have not yet had the experience of reviewing your Web site using a text-only browser such as Lynx or Jaws, do yourself a favor and download the reader and try it on your home page. The page design and layout that works best for text-only browsers also works best with screen readers used by people with vision impairments. You likely will have the revelation that this same design will also greatly help those without disabilities locate the information they need more quickly. That's a benefit for everyone.

Powell is the Agriculture Department's Internet and intranet Webmaster.

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