I. Executive Summary
The National Science Foundation World Wide Web (WWW) Federal Consortium was founded in 1994 by the National Science Foundation in collaboration with the U. S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The Consortium was created to provide a forum for collaboration and information exchange among the participating agencies, resulting in a successful leveraging of Web technology resources. The Consortium seeks to advance the goals of its member agencies, provide advice and peer review to NSF, and foster collaborative research and development.
In late 1995, the Consortium posted Web guidelines for use and/or consideration by Federal agencies on our server. Users from many sectors used the guidelines, asked for help and offered suggested enhancements. The nature of user inquiries and suggestions changed as the rapid pace of innovation swept through the Web community and the information technology paradigm continues to change almost daily. With the proliferation of Federal Web sites, civil servants and citizens can get more information than ever before and are doing so in increasing numbers on a more frequent basis. Federal Web sites are trying to keep pace, taking advantage of Internet innovation, improving services to their user constituencies, and doing so with fewer resources. In many instances technological change far out-paced strategic planning and business process redesign, raised implementation concerns and policy issues.
Perhaps the most significant change is that now the Web is far beyond its initial use as a way of putting existing hard-copy documents on-line. "Publishing" in the traditional sense of distribution of static printed documents is no longer the only paradigm. Increasingly, the Web is being used for much more dynamic purposes, e.g. delivery of an on-the-fly-constructed result of a user-initiated query, a collaborative chat session, submission of forms-based information to the server from the client, and custom documents constructed dynamically based on the interests of the user. The variety of modes of interaction is much different than the "broadcast" one-to-many mode of early Web sites, and requires those with Web managerial and technical responsibilities to continually revisit policy and technical designs with an open and flexible mind. "That's the way we've always done it" is not an appropriate philosophy these days. The Web and the Internet is revolutionary, not evolutionary, and re-inventing our practices and processes is a necessity, not an option.
Another change is that the Federal government is making a major commitment to electronic networking as a primary means of providing information and services to customers. The Web is a key enabling technology for the vision of "one-stop shopping." If Federal agencies recognize a reasonable set of Web guidelines for the organization and presentation of information, customers will be able to enter the system at any point and tap not only the specific server they first contact but also the full resources of the entire Federal presence on the Internet. The rapid growth of Web services also intensifies the need to establish standards and guidelines to help users find, retrieve, and use the information they need. If the growing number of Federal agency servers is to coalesce and become a true "on-line library," we need to apply proven principles and practices from the publishing world, traditional libraries, and non-traditional, even experimental contributors to the Web.
The guidelines now include policy considerations which Federal Agencies should review as they update and/or make new use of the Internet and expand Web sites to conduct agency business. The Office of Management and Budget's (OMB), Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, provided guidance to the Consortium in matters related to statutes, regulations and policy. Agencies need to involve not only their information systems and services experts (Webmasters and Web authors), but also public affairs officers, records managers, FOIA or Privacy Act Officers, and the General Counsel when establishing Internet and Web policy.
In conclusion, the Consortium offers these guidelines as suggestions to help the Federal community accomplish agency missions, while not inhibiting the creativity necessary to improve services to customers. The Consortium tries to avoid placing unnecessary constraints on individual Web authors or on the design and operation of individual servers and services in developing these guidelines. There is no simple set of rules for agencies to follow. Every organization faces the special circumstances of its particular mission, goals, content, customers, technical capabilities, and organizational culture. These guidelines provide suggestions to: create user friendly sites; ensure high quality and consistent content; and encourage logical organization and presentation of information.
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