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Dot-gov reforms clash with transparency objectives

Among the several thousand federal websites likely to be shuttered as part of the government's massive dot-gov reform plan, count this one: XML.gov.

Extensible Markup Language, or XML, is an extremely simple Web document language that is especially responsive to search queries and easy for other computer programs to read.

Advocates inside government say XML could be a boon for information sharing; transparency advocates favor the language because it allows them to easily extract government data and mash it up with other information such as laying campaign contributors over earmark recipients.

The computer language has generally lost out in the federal government, though, to PDFs and other document formats that are simpler to create on the front end, easier to secure and control on the back end, and more amenable to fancy graphics and crisp formatting.

Owen Ambur managed XML.gov for the last phase of his 34-year federal career. As chief XML strategist at the Interior Department and co-chairman of the government's XML community of practice, he stumped to make XML the default format for online government documents, arguing it was more important that documents be open and searchable than look good or be easy to create.

Five years after his retirement, Ambur continues to manage XML.gov as a volunteer from his home in Hilton Head, S.C., dutifully noting major advances in XML adoption and translating selected government documents into simple, scaled down text.

General Services Administration officials have told Ambur they're likely to shut down XML.gov as part of the governmentwide website consolidation campaign launched in June 2011, but there's been no final word yet. Until that word comes, Ambur said, he plans to keep plugging away.

"The whole history of XML and government is here," he said. "If the site goes away, that's lost."

Ambur ought to be a natural ally of the dot-gov consolidation campaign. One of its primary goals, after all, is to make government information more readily available to the public, which is also the main goal of XML.gov.

Instead, Ambur considers the campaign wrongheaded. Part of that criticism is personal. The campaigners want to shut down his website after all. Another part, however, is ideological. In his opinion, the dot-gov reformers wrongly equate organization with accessibility.

"The fundamental flaw in their logic is [the assumption] that consolidation makes it easier to find things," he said. "Citizens should be able to find things with Google. They shouldn't have to go to any one-stop, proprietary government, stove-piped system. That just means you have to know even more things than you did before to find a site."

In Ambur's opinion, a sprawling federal Web presence isn't really a problem because agency webmasters are about the only ones who look at the entire thing. Citizens and federal employees parachute in with Google, Bing or the government's own Search.usa.gov and don't care about the surrounding architecture as long as they've found the page they're looking for.

Just as important for Ambur, any consolidation means some content will be lost from public view, which is contrary to the basic concept of government openness.

When the Energy Department revamped its Web presence, for example, numerous PDFs about the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository were temporarily lost to search queries. An Energy official later said the documents weren't purposefully taken down but had been poorly meta-tagged during the transition and the department corrected the error.

Archiving even less important documents, though, gets under Ambur's skin.

"I'm not someone who thinks no government sites should be removed ever," he said. "But these sites were originally set up for some community of interest. The degree to which they still serve that community is debatable and could be looked at, but I'd argue in favor of caution."

Signs of XML Support

Ambur is not alone in calling for XML and other machine-readable language in government. The XML Council still putatively exists and federal technology officials continue to push for wider adoption. Most notably, federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel said "XML first" was one of a series of priorities that he wants to push to boost government efficiency in the near term.

VanRoekel led a project to increase machine readability in Microsoft products when he worked there in the 1990s and early 2000s and required new Federal Communications Commission data to be machine readable when he was the agency's CIO.

Overall, federal agencies still are steering clear of XML in favor of PDFs, even at the CIO's office. And Ambur has not found any big league federal supporters so far in his fight to save XML.gov as an active Web page.

Another point of contention between Ambur and many dot-gov reformers is the unified architectures, sleek designs and fancy graphics that reformers often put on government sites to make them more interactive and engaging. For those reformers, an engaging interface is an important part of transparency -- a way to interest the public in major policy issues. For Ambur, they're a waste of time and money that may look pretty but are extraneous at best and, at worst, can gum up search tools.

In his opinion, government pages should be basic text and links, a way of sharing information with the public and nothing more. True to his word, XML.gov is a bare-bones site, basically a collection of links and descriptions clearly focused on making information available rather than digestible.

It's easy to see why the site would be a poor fit next to the latest cadre of sleek redesigned government sites like the new Energy.gov. Instead of writing a history of the XML working group, for instance, Ambur has pasted in the email exchange that prompted the group's creation.

"The reality is people are impressed by things that look good," he said. "A huge part of our economy is based on that very thing. But the problem is that overwhelms the substance. Government shouldn't be wasting taxpayer dollars trying to make itself look good. Just put the raw facts out there and let the communities of interest sort it out if they care about it. If there's something there they care about, they'll do something with it."

(Image via Marish/Shutterstock.com)

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