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Saturday, April 06, 2013

The Harper Regimes secret plan to 'streamline' websites so they can cut public access to vital information


Disappearing federal websites


by Peter O’Malley
Were it not for a conscientious bureaucrat who leaked a presentation on Harper’s “web presence renewal” strategy to the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (BCFIPA), we would, as usual, not know anything about the Prime Minister’s plan A) to slash the number of federal departmental web sites,  B) to remove “unpopular” information from the sites that remain, and C) to set up formal,centralize supervision over information subsequently posted on the handful of surviving web sites.
The leaked document — titled Action Plan for Renewal of the GoC Web Presence — was reported recently in the Huffington Post by the BCFIPA executive director, to whom the document was leaked. The leaked plan aims to do all the above A-C, and for good measure also calls for D) social media “renewal” by the government in the form of — surprise! — more formalized,centralized control over all departmental social media accounts and interactions.
Under the new web “user-centric” renewal plan, the economic action plan PR site will be deemed popular, and get lots of exposure and promotion, unlike the sadly and inexplicably unpopular science site.
The leaked presentation (Part 1 is here, part2 is here) makes it clear that this particular “renewal” initiative is not just the dream of well-known transparency and frugality champion and Treasury Board President, Tony Clement. The real impetus, according to the document, comes from the PM himself, who mandated the Minister of Gazeebos to undertake this “renewal” in a secret letter that the presentation refers to.
Should there be any confusion here, the presentation makes it clear that this “renewal” initiative is not about saving money, at least in the short-term. No sir, it’s all about — please,no snickering — adopting a “user first” approach to web communications.
So what does a “user first” approach entail? According to the presentation, this approach involves first killing off most departmental web sites, and then replacing them with a handful of  “user centric” sites organized around  “user needs.” The assumption is that citizens are too dumb to know that they should go to, say, the Veteran’s Affairs web site for information on veteran’s pensions, or to Foreign Affairs for passport information, or to Health Canada for health information. Instead, the new “user-centric” sites will be “better” organized, much more intuitive, offering fewer information choices — so as not to confuse and distract simple-minded citizens looking for information.
Another key feature of the Brave New World of Harper’s user-centric web presence , according to the document, is reducing the government’s online information offerings overall so as to focus and highlight only high-traffic, “popular” information, while downgrading or removing information that attracts less attention.
Imagining how this new user-centrism will work in practice is not terribly difficult. For example, the government’s main “Economic Action Plan!” web site received $21 million in advertising and promotion last year, so it naturally gets a lot of (initial) site visits.  These pages would therefore be deemed to be “popular,” and more of a priority for renewed web presence than, say, a maybe dated, possibly complicated, citizen-unfriendly scientific paper on the (modest!) impact of (very rare!) oil spills on various (uninteresting!) animal species.
So under the new web renewal plan, the economic action plan PR site will be deemed popular, and get lots of exposure and promotion, unlike the sadly and inexplicably unpopular science site. No need to point fingers here, it’s just how the user-centric ball bounces in the Harper’s new user-focused web information marketplace. Numbers don’t lie. Since few taxpayers ever access scientific reports, why should they all have to pay to keep them online?
As for the millions of “legacy” pages of government studies, reports and other information now posted online and freely available to all, what happens to them when they fail to pass the new popularity test? According to a related government guideline,“legacy” materials can be sentenced by departments to incarceration in an online “archive” where unwary users can be warned that dated, user-unfriendly, useless materials now live; alternately, legacy materials can just be removed from the web entirely, as long as paper copies are kept, presumably for use by anyone who might inadvertently find out about their existence and ask for them.
A government that was committed to transparency and serious about this would do so, however, not by reducing online materials and limiting access to them.
In reality, of course, there is nothing wrong with any government wanting to improve its web sites. A government that was committed to transparency and serious about this would do so, however, not by reducing online materials and limiting access to them. It would do so by creating better site navigation, and by building improved government-wide search capacity, so that people could indeed find and peruse what they seek, without getting sidetracked or buried by information of little or no interest to them.
An authentic “user-centric” approach would allow citizens to access and peruse the vast amounts of material available from departments to locate what interests them — but it wouldn’t push them to the exact information, and only the exact information, that the government’s PR apparatus wants them to find.
When a control-freakish, anti-transparency, PR and talking-point obsessed government is revealed to have a secret “web renewal” plan, there is good reason to be skeptical, maybe even alarmed.
A final note: when might we look forward to this new user-centric federal web? According to the leaked document, the web “renewal” program — plus new controls over departmental use of social media — are supposed to be ready for implementation no later than April 2014.
Just in time for the next election. Funny that.

About Peter O'Malley


Peter O’Malley served as a communications consultant to the federal government for more than 30 years. During that time he worked on numerous federal government web presence and web consolidation projects. He now teaches at the Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication.

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