Features – The Federal Web: Content at the Ten-year Mark

Peggy Garvin of Garvin Information Consulting is author of The United States Government Internet Manual (Bernan Press) and contributing author for The Congressional Deskbook (TheCapitol.Net)

The Census Bureau celebrates its ten-year web anniversary with a look back.

At just over ten years of age, the U.S. federal government’s external web presence is maturing, if not yet mature. Federal government agencies are using their websites as serious, central communications channels rather than as showy supplements to older channels such as printed publications, paper correspondence, or telephone hotlines. Gone are the exciting “Information Highway” days of the 1990s when researchers watched anxiously for news of agencies coming online one by one, each with a small chunk of content, often on a pilot basis. It was a bumpy road, with some agencies speeding away, others stalling, and all generally headed in different directions.

Today, researchers travel a relatively more predictable route. We assume that a federal agency has a web site, that certain categories of information will be available, and that certain tools for finding that information will be provided. It is a good time to take stock of exactly what these sites have to offer. What follows is an alphabetical list of content that researchers can expect to find on federal, executive branch websites, and where on the site they can expect to find it.

Agency leadership biographies and speeches. The leadership biography is one of the most common elements of a federal agency site. It is usually found in the “About Us” section if not prominently linked from the main page. Leadership speeches are often located with the biography or in the news media section (often called the “Newsroom”).

Annual reports and strategic plans. In the beginning, even before the web, agencies published annual reports. Then along came GPRA (Government Performance and Results Act, Public Law 103-62), requiring agencies to produce strategic plans, annual performance plans, and annual program performance reports. At the direction of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB Circular A-11, Part 6) agencies are to prepare “performance budgets” in place of annual performance plans for FY2005 forward. All of these documents can be found on agency web sites, often in the same section with the agency’s annual budget documents and often linked directly from the site’s main page.

Budget documents. Most agency web sites carry their current, official budget documents. Many provide historic budget data and some provide their own budget highlights or fact sheets.

Congressional testimony. Most agencies web sites include the prepared written testimony of their staff or leadership submitted for congressional hearings. The testimony is often found in the news section, but sometimes it is tucked away on the page for the agency’s congressional affairs office. In general, agency web sites do not provide much current legislative information beyond their congressional testimony and links to congressional sites such as THOMAS.

Databases related to the regulatory, research, education, or outreach mission of the agency. The breadth and depth of databases offered on federal web sites are tremendous. Some, such as Education’s ERIC and USDA’s AGRICOLA, have been migrated to the web from early mainframe databases that are over 30 years old. Many are appropriate for subject specialists, sometimes in very narrow specialties, and so are not promoted on the agency’s main page. These databases comprise a significant part of what is referred to as the “deep web” that is not indexed by search engines.

Descriptions of major programs. Program descriptions are reliably present at agency sites. Often the most substantive information—research papers, detailed data, expert contacts—can be found at the program level.

Educational resources and pages designed for kids. Federal policy issued in 1997 encouraged agencies to develop educational content for their web sites. Most agencies, even the CIA, have some sort of “Kids’ Page,” and many have resources for teachers.

Employee directories. Agency sites typically provide an online staff telephone directory. There are some exceptions, such as at the IRS and CIA, but even these provide basic contact phone numbers. The directories are often located in the “About Us” section of a site.

Federal advisory committee information. This is one of the more elusive categories of information on agency web sites. Some agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, display advisory committee information prominently. At other sites, you may need to use the site’s search engine to ferret out press releases or announcements about advisory committees. A centralized database of basic advisory committee information is available at: http://www.fido.gov/facadatabase/public.asp.

Forms for program applications, regulatory requirements, or other purposes. From the IRS to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, everyone has forms. These may be in a central location or scattered on relevant program pages. The Government Paperwork Elimination Act (Public Law 105-277) requires agencies use electronic forms when feasible.

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) information. Federal web sites must include information on how the public can make a FOIA request with the agency. The link to FOIA information is often at the foot of the web site along with other mandatory legal links, such as disclaimers and a privacy statement. Agencies also provide FOIA “Electronic Reading Rooms” on their web sites in response to the Electronic Freedom of Information Amendments, or E-FOIA (Public Law 104-231). The nature of FOIA and E-FOIA implementation at agencies varies. The topic is covered well in articles at this site (LLRX.com), particularly in a 1999 article by Joaquin Ferrao.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). FAQ is an old Internet term, pre-dating the web browser. Still, many agencies provide a section labeled FAQ. Others adopt a plain English title such as “Common Questions” or, even more promising, “Quick Answers.” An alternative is the task-oriented “How Do I…” approach. Remember, your question may not be so unique after all; check the FAQ.

Historical information. Agency histories are not consistently available, but most departments and agencies at least post a list of their past leadership, usually in the “About Us” section or next to the current leadership roster. Brief historical information, such as a timelines or lists of historical milestones, is also common. Agencies such as NASA and the Food and Drug Administration offer far more extensive histories than most.

The FDA site covers agency history.

Inspector General reports. Federal Inspectors General (IGs) are required to report to Congress on a semiannual basis on the results of their audits and investigations of waste, fraud, and abuse. Each department or agency site features a page for IG reports. These can usually be found using the site index or search engine, but the IGnet web site also provides a convenient list of links at http://www.ignet.gov/igs/homepage1.html.

Jobs, fellowships, or internship opportunities at the agency. Agencies reliably provide employment information on their web sites in addition to the listings and announcements provided at the centralized resource USAJOBS. Sites sometimes have additional background information on career paths at the agency.

Laws and regulations under which the agency operates or which they are responsible for enforcing. These are often found in a section plainly labeled “Laws and Regulations.” But sometimes they pop up on program-specific pages scattered throughout the site, rather than in a central location.

Legal or administrative decisions, orders, or guidance issued by the agency. Most agencies provide at least some of their rulings or guidance documents on their sites, although the date coverage and formats offered vary widely. The University of Virginia Library web site provides a central list of links to such material at: http://www.lib.virginia.edu/govdocs/fed_decisions_agency.html.

Links to related federal or state agencies. Most sites provide some sort of link to related federal agencies, if only the standard graphical links to the FirstGov.gov and Regulations.gov sites. Many agencies also provide links to relevant state agencies, particularly when there is a close regulatory, research, or funding relationship with the states. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, provides links to the web sites for other federal statistical agencies, U.S. state labor market information agencies, and foreign governments’ statistical agencies.

Links to related non-government websites. These are much less common than links to other government sites but, when offered, can be useful research aids. Outside links are not typically found on the main pages. They are often lower down on specific program pages or on educational or career-related pages. If the agency’s library has a web page, that is a likely place to look for a careful selection of links to non-governmental associations, educational resources, or research institutes relevant to the agency’s work.

Links to the web pages for the agency’s divisions, facilities, or regional offices. These are reliably found on agency sites, but the level of detail provided about the division or laboratory or other agency component varies tremendously. Some regional office web sites offer rich resources, particularly in agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey that conduct field research. For others, only an address or contact may be provided.

Operational statistics on programs or population served. There is no single place to look for these on an agency site, although the “About Us” section is one place to start. A few examples of what you can find: the Office of Personnel Management has demographic statistics on the federal workforce; the Securities and Exchange Commission has data on investor complaints they’ve received; and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing has information on the number of dollar bills they print each year.

News and news services. Most every site has a section for the media, often called the “Newsroom.” The most basic media sections have press releases and agency media contacts. Other news services can include email alerts, media kits, fact sheets, webcasts, downloadable audio or video, and digital photos related to agency operations. The Newsroom may also have speeches, testimony, and budget information. See the Newsroom section at the Census site for an example of the range of services that might be provided http://www.census.gov/pubinfo/www/news.html.

The Census web newsroom.

NO FEAR Act data. Federal websites must post certain data on equal employment opportunity complaints in compliance with the Notification and Federal Employee Anti-discrimination and Retaliation of 2002, or NO FEAR Act (Public Law 107-174). A “NO FEAR Act Data” link often appears at the bottom of agency web pages. The data may also be reported on the web page for the agency’s employment, equal opportunity, or civil rights office.

Non-English content. More and more federal agencies offer some Spanish language content on their Web sites, ranging from a translation of all general content to the posting of selected brochures or public outreach materials in Spanish. Look for an “Español” link near the top of the main page, or explore the publications section for Spanish-language content. Some agencies offer content in languages beyond English and Spanish, particularly when they need to reach a diverse audience. For example, the Social Security Administration has consumer brochures online in 14 languages in addition to English and Spanish.

Organization charts. Unlike their private sector counterparts, federal agencies almost always include organization charts on their web sites. These usually are in the “About Us” section. In many cases, they are interactive: click on the relevant office’s box in the org chart to go to that office’s web page. If you’re scouting for information about an agency’s operations, be sure to look for this feature. It can be the quickest route to finding information from their congressional affairs office, chief financial officer, human resources, or general counsel.

Privacy policy. Agencies must post their information privacy policies and a statement on how any data they collect through their web site will be used. This information is almost always given in link at the foot of the web page along with other standard disclaimers and required legal content.

Procurement, grants, or technology transfer opportunities. These are often listed in sections called “Doing Business” or “Funding Opportunities.” Searchers should check agency sites in addition to centralized resources such as Grants.gov and FedBizOpps to get the most complete information.

Publications or catalogs of publications. Agencies consistently put their printed publications online, although the manner is which they do this—the format, the scope, the organization—is in no way consistent. They may be in a section called “Publications” or under the versatile “Library” label. At some sites, publications are scattered on individual division or program pages. Keep in mind that these publications are a rich source of information, but their content might not be indexed by the site’s search engine. Print—or information formatted for print distribution—is one of the most volatile areas of government information at this time. Already, many agency newsletters and periodicals have ceased in print format and morphed to a web or email version.

Search engine. Federal agency websites consistently provide a keyword search engine, although the quality of their implementation varies. Try a site’s “Advanced Search” option to increase precision in your search. Many sites incorporate FirstGov’s search engine. Searchers can also go directly to FirstGov’s advanced search and limit to a specific agency site; this is a good substitute or supplement for an agency’s own search engine. In general, web site search engines can be useful for finding very specific information and unearthing sections of a site that are several layers down.

Site map or other indexes. Unfortunately for researchers, site maps are not as common as search engines. But they are prevalent. Many agencies also offer alphabetical, topical, or audience-specific indexes along with or in place of site maps; the FDA site provides all of these. Browsing any and all indexes is an excellent approach to discovering what a site has to offer.

The FDA site has multiple indexes.

When in doubt. OK, this is not a category of information. It’s a tip. Federal websites have several favorite names for catch-all categories on their websites. Much to the dismay of this librarian, they are often called “Library” or “Reference Room” even when they are not managed by the agency’s library. These catch-all areas are one place to look for agency publications, budget documents, laws, regulations, web links, and anything else that did not merit its own label.

To find the websites for agencies mentioned in this article, and others, use the list of links on the FirstGov website at:

Anyone interested in the evolution of federal web sites may wish to look at the page the Census Bureau has designed for the tenth anniversary of its web presence, at: http://www.census.gov/webdecade/.

For more information about required federal web content and the future development of federal websites, see the web site for the Interagency Committee on Government Information (ICGI)—an entity created in 2003 to implement Section 207 of the E-Government Act of 2002 (Public Law 107-347). ICGI is doing promising work in recommending policy and practices to further the maturation of the federal web. One of their products, The Federal Web Content Managers Toolkit, has clear documentation of federal web requirements and recommendations for best practices.

Posted in: Features, Internet Resources - Web Links, Legal Research