Vol. XIX, No. 2
Web Site Watch
Locating and Maintaining Accurate Information on FOIA Home Pages
As federal departments and agencies continue to develop their FOIA home pages in accordance with the provisions of the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996 ("EFOIA"), there are two distinct elements of a well-designed FOIA page that they should carefully consider. The first is the ease of locating and accessing their FOIA home pages. The second is the accuracy of the information on their home pages, which includes the currency of links.
All FOIA home pages have specific addresses (URLs), lengthy cites of letters and symbols, which when entered in the location field will bring a user directly to an agency's FOIA home page. This is convenient and expedient, but it assumes that a user has otherwise been able to find your FOIA home page's address. However, most typically these addresses are not readily at hand. When agencies design their FOIA home pages, therefore, they should be concerned with making their FOIA home pages easily accessible from the agency's home page.
Web users need to be able to access your FOIA home page quickly and simply from your agency's home page. This point cannot be made too emphatically. Therefore, on your agency's home page there should be a link that is unquestionably the link to your FOIA site.
Many agencies have provided clear, concise links on their home pages. The Food and Drug Administration and the Small Business Administration each have a link called "Freedom of Information." The Farm Credit Administration has a link titled "Freedom of Information Act." The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a link to "FOIA." The Office of Government Ethics has a link to "Electronic Freedom of Information." These are clear, unmistakable navigational aids.
There are also some examples of obscure, inadequate links. For instance, some agencies' home pages have links to their FOIA home pages with such names as "Public Information," "Programs," or "Publications." In other instances, we tried to find a link from the home page to the FOIA home page, and could not make the connection. Considering the requirements of the EFOIA and the time spent by agency FOIA and technical personnel creating their electronic reading rooms, the site should be readily accessible to the most inexperienced user.
The second important element of a well-designed FOIA home page concerns the question of maintenance, specifically the accuracy and timeliness of the information on the page and the currency of links. Agencies should thoroughly review each aspect of their FOIA home pages on at least a quarterly basis. Agencies should consider designating one person to perform this task. Outdated material and links should be made current.
The ability to link is one of the major benefits of today's technology and the World Wide Web, giving us the ability to access all types of information with just one click of the mouse. Some links move the user from one page to another within a discreet entity. The FOIA home page of the Department of the Navy (http://www.ogc.secnav.hq.navy.mil/foia/index.html), provides a good example of the internal use of links. On Navy's FOIA page, individuals may use buttons at the top of that page to access FOIA material at Department of Defense Headquarters, as well as such material at the Departments of Army and Air Force, and the Marine Corps.
Whenever a link takes a user beyond one agency's Web site to the Web site of a second agency or nongovernment entity, the agency should consider using a disclaimer screen. A good example of this is the FOIA page of the United States Department of Energy, Nevada Operations Office (http://www.nv.doe.gov/programs/foia/foia.htm). When linking to information maintained by the Justice Department they inform the user that, "You are being transferred to a site outside of DOE Nevada!" And, "DOE is not responsible for the content of linked sites or any link contained in a linked site."
All federal agencies should link to the Justice Department's FOIA home page (http://www.usdoj.gov/foia). Justice maintains on its FOIA home page many publications and policy statements which have governmentwide applicability. Conversely, the Justice Department's FOIA home page now has a new feature which allows users to link to the FOIA pages of most federal departments and agencies. This convenience allows the user one point of entry to access most FOIA information available governmentwide.
The Justice Department will create a similar feature for FOIA annual reports, beginning with reports for fiscal year 1998. The EFOIA provides that as of February 1, 1999, all agencies should make their annual reports publicly available through their individual World Wide Web sites. The Justice Department will provide additional electronic access to all agencies' annual reports through a single World Wide Web site on its FOIA home page, by linking to individual agency sites. See FOIA Update, Winter 1998, at 5.
In complying with the requirements of the Electronic FOIA amendments, agencies should keep in mind these two elements, ease of locating and accessing FOIA home pages and maintaining accurate and current information, because they are essential components of a well-designed FOIA home page.
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"Web Site Watch" is written by FOIA Update editor Pamela Maida and OIP Senior Counsel Michael H. Hughes.
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