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Who's running the government's Web sites?

January 14, 1999
Web posted at: 10:58 a.m. EST (1558 GMT)

by Heather Harreld

Federal Computer Week
government computers

(IDG) -- A haphazard approach to hiring and training Webmasters for agency World Wide Web sites threatens the Clinton administration's plan to use the Internet as a way to deliver core services and information to the public.

Federal Webmasters have taken on the crucial role of molding and managing agency Web sites, which are a central component of the digital government of the future. These sites provide portals to matters ranging from facts about the Defense Department to information on filing taxes to weather forecasts.

Webmaster roles have evolved unfettered by the bureaucratic controls traditionally tied to government jobs. For example, the government has not defined pay grades or training requirements for Webmasters, and each agency treats the position differently. As a result, Webmasters say, they have received little or no training and little policy guidance.

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The lack of attention has brought the federal government to a crossroads with regard to exploiting the Web, said Barry Collin, senior research fellow at the Stanford, Calif.-based Institute for Security and Intelligence, which works with the federal government on security issues.

The consequences for DOD and civilian agencies could be dire, he said. Information posted on Web sites can compromise the privacy of individuals or the safety of U.S. troops.

"We are not in the corporate sector; our information affects life and death," Collin said. "We see even greater fragmentation of Web development at many agencies and people managing Web sites with insufficient training in security, content control and compliance with information deployment policy. It's time for us to formalize an information security dissemination process that, if handled carelessly, could pose tremendous intelligence threats to our national security."


The government already has made cybermissteps on the Web because the technology has outpaced the support for Webmasters, experts point out.

  • In 1997, the Social Security Administration pulled down an online service that allowed people to access their earnings history and Social Security benefits after news reports indicated how anyone with easily obtainable information could access someone else's Social Security account.

  • In September, the Army shut down its 998 Web sites in response to a DOD directive for all services to review Web sites and remove information that could cause security problems, such as officers' phone numbers and addresses. Last month, DOD issued its Web policy guidance, which delegates to DOD component and unit commanders the authority to decide whether a command or unit will maintain a Web site, and it lists a broad range of information as inappropriate for posting.

  • In November, the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics inadvertently posted part of its closely guarded jobs report on the Internet a day before the report's scheduled release, giving investors an early chance to make investments based on the information.

Lack of training

The Office of Personnel Management does not have a unique identification for federal Webmasters and therefore does not know how many Webmasters are employed by agencies or how many federal Web sites are in operation. The Federal Webmasters Forum, a group formed in 1996 for Webmasters to discuss Internet-related issues, also does not know the exact number of Webmasters and Web sites.

Unlike other government job classifications that are usually tightly structured, many of today's Webmasters were techies who were exploring Internet technology before introducing the technology to their agencies, said Rich Kellett, co-chairman of the Webmasters forum.

Some training is available. The Webmasters forum created in 1997 the Federal Web Management Institute to provide first-of-its-kind, in-depth training to federal Webmasters.

Michael Balk, course director of the institute, has trained 480 Webmasters since the program started. But only about 1 percent of his class members have a degree or educational background related to Web technology, he said.

"In the federal arena, most Web stuff is an add-on," he said. "[Management says], 'Here, you know what a computer is, you're the Webmaster.'... They just get thrown into it."

Indeed, at a recent meeting of federal government Webmasters, 18 of 28 Webmasters said in an informal survey that they do not receive adequate training to maintain a level of expertise.

Alice Alexander, the part-time Web manager for the Transportation Department, said she has attended one conference about the Web, but she must be creative to find help in areas in which she has no expertise. One of her recent projects has been to develop a business plan for the DOT Web site, but she has not been able to find anyone in DOT who has experience planning Internet services. She has inquired whether a retired business executive with the Small Business Administration's volunteer Service Corps of Retired Executives might help.

Laws lag move to Web

Webmasters also have struggled with interpreting how laws that dictate the management of paper documents affect electronic records. Such laws include the Privacy Act, which is designed to protect personal information the government collects, and the Federal Records Act, which requires the government to save documents or other media used for official business.

In 1996, the Office of Management and Budget circulated a draft policy that would classify agency Web content as federal records and require agencies to apply to the Internet laws that have applied to paper documents. Federal officials argued that they would be unable to apply these laws to the Web, a unique medium that requires more detailed guidance.

OMB officials plan to release a final Web use policy, an OMB spokesman said. Until then, he said OMB Circular A-130, which broadly defines proper agency use of information technology, and the National Archives and Records Administration's guidance on federal records are adequate for agencies to follow. "Most of the paper-based laws are applicable," he said. "It's essential that we and agencies remain flexible. Agencies have to be ready to exhibit entrepreneurship.... Agencies are supposed to manage themselves."

Kellett said, however, that policies developed for paper documents are not easily applicable to electronic documents. He said individual agencies likely would apply the laws in drastically different ways. "It takes a lot of conceptualizing to apply a paper-based policy to the Internet world," he said. "There has to be considerable discretion and judgment."

Order and chaos

The diverse backgrounds of agency Webmasters and the lack of adequate policy guidance and training have combined to create a federal online environment that Kellett described as order and chaos.

The Internet's chaotic world of creativity and the multiplicity of agency practices conflict with the order of standards and evolving common practices, Kellett said. But many agencies are reluctant to rein in the free-spirit culture of the Internet with rules and regulations.

Most federal agencies have chosen a decentralized model for managing the Web, in which departments within an agency are given free rein with regard to content issues. At the Agriculture Department, each of the 30 primary agency Webmasters can determine what the pages will look like and the information that will be posted, said Vic Powell, USDA Webmaster.

USDA agency Webmasters are free to appoint subpage Webmasters, some of whom are in charge of all aspects of the Web page, while others are charged with content and others are responsible for technical issues.

At NASA's Kennedy Space Center, no employee is totally dedicated to Webmaster duties, said James Dumoulin, the center's Webmaster. Each of the center's 80 servers are managed by the group that generates and posts the data to the Web. The public affairs office has an approval process for information posted on the site, and the agency's chief information officer has published directives outlining what type of material can go on the Web.

"It's a fairly open environment," Dumoulin said. "There's no sense of somebody up top saying, 'Don't say this.' Nobody has wanted to squelch the dissemination of information to the research community."

Carlynn Thompson, director of research, development and acquisition of information support at DOD's Defense Technical Information Center, said the role of the Webmaster varies greatly from agency to agency.

"The Webmaster should not be the focal point for federal information content," she said. "The focus needs to be shifted in agencies to make the content owners responsible for review and release of content to their respective user communities."

Gretchen Van Hyning, chairwoman of the Federal World Wide Web Consortium and chief of the Department of Housing and Urban Development's communications systems branch, said HUD has followed this philosophy by drawing a clear line between employees charged with the content of the agency's Web pages and those who deal with technical aspects.

Web managers devise polices to govern HUD's centralized Web model. The agency has one URL, one Web server, one jump-station Web site and one domain for its 81 field offices. "It means that there is somebody who is not technical whose job it is to think about what the Web site wants to achieve," Van Hyning said.

Wanted: Chief Web Officer

No matter what role agencies carve out for those charged with molding Web technology to fit an agency's needs, the challenges faced by Webmasters likely will become more difficult as agencies move to use the Web for electronic commerce, Kellett said.

Kellett's suggestions include forming Web teams that would include a privacy officer, a security specialist, a records management officer and a public affairs representative, among others. In addition, he sees the need for taking the Webmaster role to an even higher level by institutionalizing it within an agency.

"Because of the broad impact the Web has on the business, it almost seems you need a specialist dealing with Web issues - the chief Web officer," he said.

Heather Harreld is a senior reporter at FCW.

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