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Project on Government Oversight




Thirteen Best Practices for Open Government Webpages

February 17, 2010 


Earlier this month, each agency in the executive branch launched an Open Government Webpage (OGW) as part of the Open Government Directive (OGD). But while the Open Government Dashboard — the White House's scorecard for agency execution of the OGD transparency initiatives — might have us believe that each agency's website is of equal quality, results have varied.

In the spirit of collaboration and knowledge sharing, POGO is respectfully submitting 13 best practices for Open Government Webpages. Culled from OGWs across the executive branch, each recommended practice has already been implemented by at least one agency. For each best practice we highlight an agency that is doing something well and also an agency that could benefit from implementing this practice.

Three themes emerge out of this list. First, agencies have not been emphasizing the accountability aspects of the OGD. The work of agency inspectors general (IGs) — the internal agency watchdogs —  is largely ignored on the OGWs. IGs play a fundamental role in holding agencies accountable, and OGWs should be featuring their work as prominently as information about data sets, Freedom of Information Logs, and transparency evaluations. Agencies should also make clear their thinking behind previous open government initiatives, particularly when it comes to last month's release of high value data sets.

Second, agencies should be doing more to promote their transparency initiatives. Too many agencies ignored existing communication infrastructures — Twitter followers, press corps, and Facebook fans — and mutely launched their web pages into oblivion. Agencies must initiate conversation in order to meet the Open Government Directive's goal of increased dialogue and collaboration.

Third, agencies must demonstrate a long-term commitment to transparency by integrating OGWs into their homepages. Agencies should signal that openness is a regular part of their operations, not something relegated to an obscure room in their digital dungeon.

Here are thirteen best practices POGO has identified for Open Government Webpages: 

1. Link to OGW on the agency homepage

Examplary agency: the Department of Justice (DOJ) homepage features a prominent banner for their OGW.

Agency needing improvement: the Department of Education homepage makes no mention of their OGW.

2. Integrate the OGW with standard website architecture

Exemplary agency: NASA links to the OGW at the bottom of homepage, NRC includes a link in their "Public Meetings and Involvement" pull-down menu.

Agency needing improvement: DOJ's homepage banner is great, but suggests that the OGW is a one-off measure, not long-term strategy.

3. Invite the public to participate

Exemplary agency: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) asks questions and invites readers to contribute their ideas.

Agency needing improvement: The Department of Defense (DoD) simply highlights "IDEAS SUBMITTED BY YOU."

4. Designate a point of contact and clearly indicate how to get in touch

Exemplary agency: the Department of Energy names an Open Government Representative on their OGW.

Agency needing improvement: Housing and Urban Development (HUD) makes no mention of a rep on their OGW, only noting the existence of an "OCIO" in an obscure .pdf file.

4b. Make sure the information for this point of contact is accurate!

Sending an email to the address listed for the DOE's Open Government Representative last week resulted in this reply:

Delivery to the following recipient failed permanently:

Technical details of permanent failure:
DNS Error: Domain name not found

5. Place progress evaluations prominently and make them easily accessible

Exemplary agency: the Commerce Department places their evaluation on the OGW front page.

Agency needing improvement: HUD's evaluation is a .pdf file, DoD's is a .doc.

6. Justify the value of your data sets

Exemplary agency: as we noted on Wednesday, DoD describes why it thinks each data set is both valuable and new.

Agency needing improvement: DHS only supplies a list of links.

7. Provide information about declassification

Exemplary agency: DOJ includes a link to declassification information in the left sidebar.

Agency needing improvement: DoD does not provide any information about declassification.

8. Share work of inspector general

Exemplary agency: partial credit to the State Department for a link on their OGW to performance reports, which does include IG content.

Agency needing improvement: all OGWs could do a better job of highlighting the work of IGs.

9. Issue press releases about open government initiatives

Exemplary agencies: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, DHS, and Social Security Administration issued press releases.

Agency needing improvement: most other agencies missed this chance to highlight their transparency work.

10. Offer email subscriptions for open government news

Exemplary agency: the Department of Labor offers a subscription to "E-mail updates about the open government initiative at DOL"

Agency needing improvement: DOE provides links to Flickr, Vimeo, YouTube and Facebook pages but offers no clear way to get instant updates.

11. Offer RSS feed for updates to OGW

Exemplary agency: U.S. Treasury offers an Open Government Initiative RSS feed

Agency needing improvement: DOE offers links to Flickr, Youtube, Vimeo, and Facebook pages, but does enable readers to receive instant updates.

12. Spread the word in new media infrastructure

Exemplary agency: Veterans Affairs announced the launch of their OGW on Twitter.

Agency needing improvement: State Dept. made no mention to its 14,000+ followers on Twitter.

13. Create a news update introducing OGW

Exemplary agency: the DHS homepage features a shoutout for their OGW on its rotating billboard.

Agency needing improvement: the Department of Transportation homepage features a similar billboard, but makes no mention of its OGW.

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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