Why Are Government Websites So Bad?

Broken links, outdated information and mysterious abbreviations are just a few of the problems.
August 2017
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Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

Years ago, it took days to get our hands on basic government documents. We’d call someone who could send them to us, hope they would follow through and then wait for the U.S. Postal Service to do its job. When they didn’t arrive in a week or so, we’d repeat the process.

These days, like many other researchers, journalists, policymakers and citizens, we rely on the troves of reports, budgets, data and plans that state and local governments post on their websites. This isn’t just an executive branch phenomenon. State legislative websites now provide more information online than anyone would have thought possible 20 years ago, including such helpful items as access to meeting minutes and summaries of proposed bills.

But the postings often leave users more frustrated than grateful. Many of us feel that this promised land of facts is more of a mirage than an informational oasis.

Consider the common absence of plain English. Connecticut legislative committee minutes, for example, often use the initials “JF.” What does this mean? We sure didn’t know. According to other parts of the committee’s website, we learned that JF means “joint favorable.” But even with that in hand, users need further translation. It turns out that JF means a bill made it out of committee with a favorable report. Wouldn’t it be easier on users to just say that? Or, at least, to add a simple footnote to the initials?

At least Connecticut committees produce minutes. When we looked for notes on proceedings from the dozens of legislative committee meetings held this year in Delaware, we found exactly one.

Here’s another issue that would be relatively easy to fix: Many legislatures refer to sessions by their assigned number rather than the year. There may be a spot on the website that translates session numbers into session years, as there is in Texas, but we’d find it easier if the dates were listed parenthetically when reference is made to the session number. No one should have to delve deeply to see that the 80th session was held in 2007.

Particularly galling are prominent website tabs that promise to link users to pages that sound like they will provide helpful data, but lead to sites with very little information. The Rhode Island website provides links to annual reports on its homepage, for instance. But many of the “annual” reports available are five to 10 years old. Our own spot check of the information shows that more recent reports exist. The list just hasn’t been updated.

In some cases, the links are broken. Take the one for the Rhode Island Corrections Department. The link to its annual report sends you to a “not found” message. But a Google search revealed several annual reports published by that department including a population report for 2016.

Or take the Legislative Reference Library in Texas. At the top of the webpage there’s a tab for committees. Once you click onto the committee page, you’ll see the clickable words “Committee minutes & related documents” posted on the left. Click through, as we did, and you’ll find that the most recent committee minutes and related documents are from the 75th session of the legislature, which was two decades ago.

After years of going through legislative websites, we’ve developed a short wish list of items we’d like to see on them, starting with a central repository for reports. In Virginia, such material is kept meticulously up to date, and the astonishing number of reports listed each year gives us a sense of the work that is buried and hard to find in many other states. By mid-June 2017, for instance, there were nearly 200 reports for the year. Clicking on each link brings you to a short summary first -- a very nice feature -- and then you can click through to the whole document.

As we’ve already mentioned, we’re fans of comprehensive meeting minutes. In Idaho, legislative committee minutes are frequently cited as a model for local government folks. According to Betsy Russell, president of Idahoans for Openness in Government, an affiliate of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, the legislature’s approach shows “how to do minutes right.” In part that’s because the minutes tell the reader who the speakers are and offer summaries of what they said, as well as listing motions, votes and decisions.

Particularly helpful is information explicitly labeled as useful for citizen engagement. Oregon is a standout here. Its website offers audio and video links to legislative meetings, publications and reports, as well as a legislative data site.

Research organizations with buckets full of money can hire companies to track bills for them. But some legislative websites make this process much easier. Notable is Florida. The pages for a bill’s history are clear and concise and tell you the status of each bill filed.

We honestly do not believe that state legislatures are being purposefully opaque when it comes to presenting important information online. That might be true at times, but we think it is more likely that many legislators simply aren’t paying much attention to the information they make available to the public -- and what they could accomplish with improved communication.