Groups Monitoring Agency Website Changes See Deeper Trump Agenda

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Last December, the Trump White House quietly rolled out its redesigned website at Whitehouse.gov. During a background briefing for select reporters, a senior administration official said the site’s purpose was to “deliver the president’s message directly to the American people,” and its new infrastructure would save taxpayers $3 million.

The new website was produced using mostly open source technology by the White House Office of Digital Strategy, whose mission is “to amplify the president’s message and engage with citizens around the country online.” Like websites for previous administrations, it is heavy on news and photos and promotion of the White House agenda, including reprints of favorable headlines, such as: “Las Vegas Review-Journal: “Donald Trump repeals yet another Obama regulation.

But gone from the home page is the Obama administration’s now-archived website feature called the “Briefing Room,” an inventory of links to legislation, up-to-date-lists of nominations and appointments, the White House schedule and press statements. The Trump approach is to offer users top-line subject areas—National Security, the Economy, Immigration—under which are listed a grab-bag of goals, announcements, letters to Congress, executive orders, and nominations. But those seeking legal and technical documents or agency guidance from the Office of Management and Budget will have a harder time finding such things, which were formerly more easily accessible.

The Trump team’s corporate-style website redesign, however, did not roll out in a vacuum. An army of nonprofit transparency groups and policy advocacy organizations have been monitoring the administration’s changes to websites across government.

Lack of Transparency

The Union of Concerned Scientists and the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, for example, have been tracking the administration’s removal of science-based materials related to climate change on websites of the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of the Interior, Energy, Agriculture, and State. Another area advocacy groups are concerned about relates to changes to medical information provided by the Health and Human Services Department.

But the policy groups are also concerned about how the changes themselves are unfolding. When the EPA in April 2017 removed the agency’s primary web page for scientific data on climate change (on the eve of a protest march), the union’s spokeswoman said, “The administration appears to have timed these changes to make information about climate science more challenging to access.” (The EPA replied that the removed pages, which were archived and linked, were “out of date” and were being reviewed to reflect the agency’s new direction.)

Michael Halpern, deputy director for the scientists union’s Center for Science and Democracy, told Government Executive, “There should be a presumption that information on websites should be preserved and an explanation given when it’s taken down,” he said, “because people have come to rely on the federal government for access to all kinds of information,” now quantifiable in terabytes.

Halpern acknowledges that agencies need flexibility to allow for updates and “don’t need to create a notice-and-comment period every time they change a website.” But overall, “a lot less information is now available on climate change” on the federal sites, he said. Only “because librarians and scientists came together to shine a light on the vulnerability of that information,” Halpern added, has most data remained online. He notes that many cities have also posted climate-related data sets removed by the federal EPA.

The redesigned White House website has prompted similar concerns about process. Patrice McDermott, director of Government Information Watch, says “Information policy is all about the information’s quality, and any information that’s used in government regulations and programs rulemaking has to be made publicly available,” she said, noting that the Trump team removed OMB’s longstanding Circular A-130 on strategic information management, updated by the Obama team in 2016.

“Actual policy information that’s current is not available. It’s all about publicity and pushing the framework they want to push. They have a legitimate right to do that,” McDermott said, “but it’s also obstructing and makes it impossible to find anything that contradicts it.”

A similar critique comes from Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, which is coordinating a “Web Integrity Project” to track changes at dozens of Trump agency websites. The new White House site wasn’t designed by the experienced designers on the government team at U.S. Digital Service or 18F, though the work is professional, he said.

“This site is not the world-class site we think it should be,” he said. "To help the public understand what is happening in their government, agencies should provide them with information designed around their expected needs and demonstrated interests, based upon research conducted by an experienced digital services team," he added.

"The extent to which a White House is willing to hold itself to account and publish information that they are not mandated to disclose says a lot about values a given administration places on transparency that builds trust,” Howard said. The website’s “success in burnishing the image of the president comes at the cost of failing to arm the public with the information required for self-governance, as envisioned by James Madison.”

Despite multiple inquiries, the White House did not respond to Government Executive’s requests for comment.

A Year of Adjustments

The clash between the Trump administration and transparency advocates began just after Trump’s surprise election victory in 2016.

The National Archives and Records Administration updated its guidance on record retention during transitions, as well as its longstanding prescriptions for working with agencies. Agencies retain much of the responsibility and discretion to determine which portions of websites must be retained as federal records.

A coalition of government and academic library and archivist groups, called the End of Term Presidential Harvest, cooperated to preserve websites created during the Obama administration. And the Obama White House, in a Jan. 17, 2017, blog post, announced that after the inauguration, its Whitehouse.gov pages would be available at obamawhitehouse.archives.gov, along with materials from the Clinton and Bush years maintained by the Archives.

At noon on Jan. 20, 2017, the Trump White House updated the White House website and relegated a lot of Obama-era material to archival status, but kept the same underlying architecture, Howard noted. Many observers thought the Trump people had “deleted all kinds of circulars and memos still in effect,” he said. But a comparison showed that most of it was retained. Information such as Obama visitor logs, though not easily findable, are available for downloading.

Contentwise, Howard said, his complaints about the Trump site include that some mandatory disclosable items—such as ethics waivers and staff salaries—were placed on the site as PDF files, which goes against a 2013 open data executive order.

But Howard gives the Trump team credit for a usable page on the Freedom of Information Act.

The Trump changes were made with scant explanation or notice. By February 2017, the nonprofit coalition called OpentheGovernment.org assembled 69 allied organizations to write to OMB calling on “federal agencies to fulfill their legal requirement to provide the public with adequate notice before removing public information from government websites.”

In March, OMB official Dominic Mancini, acting administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, responded by saying the White House had complied by alerting all agencies to such requirements. “Acting CIO Margaret Graves and I did send a note reminding the agencies of their obligations with respect to information dissemination under existing laws and guidance; in particular, the Paperwork Reduction Act section 3506(d)(3) and OMB Circular A-130, Managing Information as a Strategic Resource, section 5(e)(7)(b). In addition, we reminded agencies that they should continue to manage their public facing websites and digital services, and the information on them, in a way that maintains high standards of effectiveness, usability, and information quality, as outlined in OMB memorandum, M-17-06, Policies for Federal Agency Public Websites.”

Both the Paperwork Reduction Act and A-130 contain a specific provision instructing agencies to “provide adequate notice when initiating, substantially modifying or terminating significant information dissemination products.”

Women’s Health and Openness

Whether such requirements are being followed at the agency level was tested this spring at the HHS Office on Women’s Health. The Sunlight Foundation, combined with reporting by Politico, flagged the removal of health data on a popular website related to LGBT health initiatives and, separately, breast cancer.

Analysis and screen shots of WomensHealth.gov documented by Sunlight this March found that as of October 2017, the previous “Lesbian and bisexual health” page “is no longer linked from anywhere on the Office on Women’s Health website and the previous URL leads to a removed page.”

Sunlight Web research leader Andrew Bergman said the team has identified similar removals on other HHS webpages, but that “We’ve seen nothing this targeted at one HHS site.”

“The removal of lesbian and bisexual health materials in particular, without advance notice and in a targeted way, raises concerns that they’ve targeted information for vulnerable populations,” Bergman said.

Then in early April 2018, Sunlight released a report showing that the HHS office had removed material on how to understand and screen for breast cancer. “While content about mammogram breast cancer screening remains, informational pages and factsheets about the disease, including symptoms, treatment, risk factors, and public no- or low-cost cancer screening programs, have been entirely removed and are no longer found elsewhere” on the site, the report said.

On April 6, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent HHS Secretary Alex Azar a letter requesting “information about why the Trump Administration has scrubbed information about breast cancer, preventive services guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act, and various LGBTQ health issues.”

With days of its report, however, Sunlight found that some, though not all, of the pages had been restored, reporting that “HHS did not publicly announce the addition of the new page, nor plans for whether additional breast cancer material will be added to the OWH website.”

An HHS spokesperson provided Sunlight with an explanation based on the department’s web policies, describing the removed pages as out of date and little-used. The spokesperson commented that “federal record keeping guidelines make no mention of proactively communicating changes to our federal websites to the public.”

Asked for comment by Government Executive, Jennifer Bishop, a communications official with the HHS Office on Women’s Health, said, “There’s nothing nefarious going on,” and that the changes were made intentionally by career staff with years of education in the field. “There’s no burying of information,” she added. “If anything, we’re using best practices to place information where people are looking for it.”

Specifically, Bishop said, her team concluded that people seeking breast cancer information should consult the National Cancer Institute, or the Centers for Disease Control. “When we worked out the metrics and audited the website, we knew that people are not coming to our website for this information.”

The women’s health office was also responding to the shift of many users to mobile devices, Bishop added. The previous 10- to 12-page HHS fact sheet on LGBT health issues “was wrong” in trying to highlight issues for lesbian and bisexual women such as “heart disease, which has no correlation with LGBT women,” she said. Research on how people search for health information shows that it’s “based on the disease, not on the audience.” Furthermore, the discussions of, say, venereal diseases assumed that all women who have sex with other women identify as either lesbian or bisexual, which may not be the case, Bishop said. Addressing the topics by disease is more “inclusive,” she said.

Other lawmakers have zeroed in on the question of whether significant agency website changes require public notice. Three months into the Trump administration, Sens. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., introduced the Preserving Data in Government Act (S 960). It would require federal agencies to maintain open access to machine-readable databases and datasets created by taxpayer-funded research—and to prevent removal of existing datasets without sufficient public notice.  

Meanwhile, the monitoring of website changes by groups like the Sunlight Foundation is set to expand. Sunlight is taking on health care, immigration and, soon, criminal justice and foreign aid and relations, Toly Rinberg, the director of its Web Integrity Project, told Government Executive.

“It’s difficult because no one is looking comprehensively at the whole .gov domain, and agencies tend to change websites quietly and without notice,” he said. “The public needs to rely on civil society and news outlets to highlight when unjustified reductions in access to information takes place.” The organization is monitoring 30,000 web pages at HHS, the Homeland Security Department and other agencies, Rinberg added. “But the .gov domain is tens of millions of web pages.”

Correction: The original version of this article indicated that Alex Howard said one problem with the Trump administration's White House website was that some items were placed on the site in zip files. He said the issue was that they had been uploaded as PDFs. The article has been updated to correct the error.

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