The government has lots and lots of information available, and in digital format, that is public in nature and available to anyone interested. However, that doesn't mean that the vast amount of data is easy to find. In fact, with the ever-changing landscape of offices, projects and divisions in government, finding particular reports on a topic can actually be a bit of a crapshoot. This is because many government agencies, while embracing the Internet finally as a means to disseminate lots of public information, don't do it in a very smart manner.
Why It's Hard to Find Things
Government information and reports are essentially grouped and made available by the agency responsible for a particular topic or program. Within the agency there are multiple divisions, and within them programs, offices, and finally teams and projects. This hierarchy can be found in any level of government, from the city level to the federal environment. And the same structure of responsibility and domain is followed when government establishes itself on the Internet. The primary focus is not about how to find information; it's about how to group government areas into manageable categories, including all of their relevant topics. No surprise then, the average person who doesn't speak gov-lingo or understand this approach has a hell of a time finding a valuable report on what he's looking for.
Built-in Resistance to Change
Generally, government is also a lot slower to adapt to new tools and strategies because their value has to work its way up the food chain in a given agency. For example, in one survey by Information Week only 23% of public agencies allowed cloud technology. While many of the entry-level folks are adept and understand things like SEO strategy and web content, middle management and executive management may have never heard of the terms, much less what they mean. This is because many civil service government positions do not have heavy rotation as on the private side. So the same manager could be running an office or program for 10 years without any updating of skills.
If there is a wide scale change, it's usually due to executive management bringing in an outside consultant to "shake things up" as well as being successful in forcing the internal bureaucracy to accept a fast change outside of normal channels.
Finally, many government managers have an adverse fear of putting everything up on the Internet for anyone to see. According to FedTech security is a top concern. There is a natural defense and cover in anonymity within a large bureaucracy which can make it far easier to run a program without as many critics to respond to. When things get too available, every government decision becomes politicized with the pettiest of stakeholders, and then nothing gets done. Instead, massive amounts of time and money are wasted in meetings to appease everyone involved.
Some Hope from Surprising Quarters
Assuming one gets past all the red tape, there is quite a bit that government can do to make it far easier for people to find information. And, believe it or not, the federal Internal Revenue Service is a good example of an agency geared on the Internet to help people find information.
First, irrespective of which program or area an IRS document may be in, the agency also provides a default menu-drive search engine to quickly find manuals and forms. While every one of these forms has its own web page discussing the document, a user can go straight to the menu and find the document quickly without having to wade through categories, sections and titles.
Second, the IRS takes a proactive approach with mailing lists and has multiple areas that people can sign up with which to receive notices and updates of changes in general areas. There's one for the regular tax payer, one for small business, one for government agencies, and so on. Viewers can sign up to any of them and receive changes and updates as they occur instead of finding them by accident. All of these notices also carry linkages back to the IRS website for both the direct information discussed as well as additional related resources.
Third, every page and document is embedded with search engine optimization (SEO) terms and metatags. This approach is followed religiously. The IRS knows that external search engine are meta-crawling the agency's site daily for changes and additions. They also know that people don't type in "IRS collections division" in a search, they type in a form number received and "owe IRS taxes." So the agency has geared its website to match terminology so the right material appears on a search engine query.
Finally, every document is made available in a standard PDF format for easy download and reading on most devices. Users don't have to fiddle with different software's to figure out how to read an IRS report. It appears just like the hardcopy document, and the links inside the file also tie back to the website consistently.
Changing the Paradigm of Information Posting
Bringing government into the modern moment of the Internet will always take time given how the political and bureaucratic processes operate. That said, when an agency can get past its traditional culture of putting information in silos, a huge ability to leverage data and information across programs occurs. The Internet is a great tool for making this happen, especially with search tools, but the agency management has to be able to see the vision themselves and understand how it works. Otherwise, lower level staff will never get a chance to improve their programs on a digital level as fast as the public expects it to occur.
Something as simple as creating an internal social communication platform within an agency can often produce synergies across offices and programs on various projects. However, the bureaucracy fears a system that moves to fast and can't be controlled, both from a strategic and political level to a personnel management level. As a result, there will always be strong initial resistance to "premature" information sharing at reasonable Internet speeds without oversight. The real challenge is to get managers in government to understand such risks are not as bad or great as they think they are.