Last week, Joe Lieberman and others introduce a bill in the Senate to reauthorize the E-Government Act of 2002. In my new paper about online government transparency I explain how most agencies are likely in compliance with the Act by simply putting their regulatory dockets online, even though those dockets may be largely inaccessible by the public. For example, the FCC’s online docketing system, about which I’ve been griping lately, is probably up to par as far as the Act goes.
The good news is that the reauthorization bill includes an amendment that aims to make federal websites more accessible. It reads in part:
Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of the E-Government Reauthorization Act of 2007, the Director [of OMB] shall promulgate guidance and best practices to ensure that publicly available online Federal Government information and services are made more accessible to external search capabilities, including commercial and governmental search capabilities. The guidance and best practices shall include guidelines for each agency to test the accessibility of the websites of that agency to external search capabilities. … Effective on and after 2 years after the date of enactment of the E-Government Reauthorization Act of 2007, each agency shall ensure compliance with any guidance promulgated[.]
The purpose of these changes are to make federal sites more easily indexed by commercial search engines, such as Google, which are what most citizens use to find information. Some agencies have begun looking into this already. That is great in itself, but what really interests me here is the notion of “best practices” guidelines with which the agencies must comply. This could be the Trojan Horse that gets XML into federal sites. Once data is available in a structured format, then third parties can use it to create different (and likely better) user interfaces for the data, as well as interesting mashups.
I hope OMB will take this opportunity to revamp their e-gov efforts. Regulations.gov, a site they manage along with EPA, does not offer XML. (I’ve talked about this before here.) It also does abysmally on search engines, perhaps because they use outdated frames markup. A quick check shows Google last indexed the site in January. I sincerely hope this kick-starts things.