Web Builders’ Guidelines for Government Websites

Many website developers may not be aware that, if they do any sort of work with or that represents the United States government or any of their agencies, there are a set of rules and regulations they must comply with. You might think to yourself, “Well, what are the odds I’ll work with the government?” but the answer might surprise you.

The government outsources many programs, and the contractors that receive those jobs may, in turn, outsource that work.

If you are doing work that ultimately is going to be used by the U.S. government you need to be aware of the following standards that they require by law.

Access for People with Disabilities (Section 508)

All federal public websites* must comply with the requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (29 U.S.C. 794d), which is designed to make online information and services fully available to individuals with disabilities. Organizations should review Section 508 and accompanying guidelines to ensure that their public websites meet the requirements.

To comply simply follow the P.O.U.R. Principles to ensure your website is as accessible as possible.

Access for People with Limited English Proficiency

OMB Policies for Federal Public Websites states that “your agency is already required to provide appropriate access for people with limited English proficiency by implementing Department of Justice guidance for Executive Order 13166, ‘Improving Access to Services for People with Limited English Proficiency.’ Agencies must determine whether any individual document on their Federal agency public website(s) requires translation.”

Providing a link to Google Translate listed in multiple languages is a quick and easy way to ensure language barriers are not an issue with your content. Beyond that, it is up to the individual agencies as the guideline states.

Digital Rights, Copyright, Trademark, and Patent Laws

Most content on federal public websites* is in the public domain and should not include copyright or other intellectual property notices. However, when an organization uses or duplicates information available from the private sector as part of an information resource, product, or service, the organization must ensure that the property rights of the private sector source are adequately protected. These protections apply to any material posted to federal public websites, such as documents, graphics, or audio files. Organizations should review content to determine if it is subject to international copyright laws. Organizations should review the relevant laws and regulations to ensure that their public websites meet the full range of requirements.

You would simply follow standards for using copy-protected material to comply. Remember that, just because the site or blog may be for the government, property right laws still apply.

For more information, see Digital Rights, Copyright, Trademark, and Patent Laws.

Categorization of Information

All federal public websites must comply with upcoming policies and standards to implement the E-Government Act of 2002, Section 207(d), which is being developed based on recommendations from the ICGI’s Categorization of Information Working Group.

The law was established  “to enhance the management and promotion of electronic Government services and processes by establishing a Federal Chief Information Officer within the Office of Management and Budget and by establishing a broad framework of measures that require using Internet-based information technology to enhance citizen access to Government information and services, and for other purposes.” As stated here, these policies are still being developed.

For more information, see Categorization of Information.

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

All federal public websites* must comply with existing laws and directives that relate to the Freedom of Information Act. The principal requirement is that websites must have a page that includes certain content as required by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This page should include information about how the public can request information under the Act. Organizations should review the FOIA and implementation guidance to ensure that their public websites meet the full range of requirements.

If your content is to be part of a larger government site, then that will have the appropriate info page. If you are putting together the entire site, then you will need to have a page meeting the requirements. A good example can be found at the FCC’s website page on how to file FOIA requests.

Information Quality and Integrity

All federal public websites* must comply with Public Law 106–554, “Guidelines for Ensuring and Maximizing the Quality Objectivity, Utility, and Integrity of Information Disseminated by Federal Organizations.” This law requires federal organizations to issue guidelines for “ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information (including statistical information) disseminated by Federal organizations.” Organizations should review the Act and implementation guidance to ensure that their public websites meet the requirements.

This act can be summarized by saying that your information on a government website needs to be factual and objective. Check your info thrice and keep your opinions to yourself.

For more information, see the specifics on information quality and integrity law.

Lobbying

All federal public websites* must comply with existing laws that prohibit federal public websites from being used for direct or indirect lobbying. Organizations should review the relevant law to ensure that their public websites meet the full range of requirements.

Your website or information that you contribute must be free from outside influence by, and must not be on behalf of, a lobbying organization. There are multiple federal penalties including jail time for violating these rules.

No Fear Act

All federal public websites* must comply with the existing No Fear Act Notification and Federal Employee Anti–Discrimination and Retaliation of 2002 (No Fear Act) Public Law No. 107–174. Organizations should review the relevant law to ensure that their public websites meet the full range of requirements.

The Notification and Federal Employee Anti-Discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 is a federal law that seeks to discourage federal managers and supervisors from engaging in unlawful discrimination and retaliation. It is popularly called the No-FEAR Act and is also known as Public Law 107–174. Basically, don’t discriminate against your employees while engaged in your government related work. There are, of course, other non-discrimination laws that you must comply with all the time.

Plain Writing Act

The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires the federal government (executive branch) to write all new publications, forms, and publicly distributed documents in a “clear, concise, well-organized” manner.

This is just a common sense law. If you read many government web sites, you’ll notice they are still having trouble complying with this one, but that’s no excuse for you not to.

Privacy

All federal public websites* must comply with existing laws and directives that address the need to protect the privacy of the American people when they interact with their government. Some of the key requirements for federal public websites include:

Conducting privacy impact assessments; Posting privacy policies on each website, including instructions on how to “opt-out” of any web tracking and measurement technologies the agency may use; Posting a “Privacy Act Statement” that tells visitors the organization’s legal authority for collecting personal data and how the data will be used; and translating privacy policies into a standardized machine–readable format.

In the context of a contractor adding to or developing a website for a government agency, this is something the agency would be responsible for maintaining. However, as a contractor or small business owner, you should be aware of complying with applicable privacy laws that would pertain to you. Find more info at the Small Business Administrations page on privacy laws and Privacy Requirements.

Security Protocols

All federal public websites* must comply with Section 207(f)(1)(b)(iv) of the E–Gov Act of 2002, which requires organizations to have security protocols to protect information.

I take from this that you should implement any protocols, as well as disclaimers and legal protections, you can. Again, if contributing to an existing government site, they should have site protocols in place; but, if you are putting together an entire site, you will want to consult with the agency is question and implement government level protocols yourself.

For more information, see Security Protocols to Protect Information.

Access to Records

All federal public websites* must comply with existing laws and regulations related to the management of public Web records, including the NARA guidance related to Web records issued on December 17, 2005. Organizations should review existing laws and regulations and other guidance to ensure that their public websites are in compliance.

You should consult a local attorney or another knowledgeable expert in your locale to determine the specifics of the statutes of limitation or statutes of repose in your state. These statutes protect you from a claim being made long after a project is completed. These statutes vary from state to state, with time frames running from 6 to 15 years, and their length of time can also change frequently.

In addition to those laws, President Obama implemented the Executive Orders, Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information, that requires that data generated by the government be made available in open, machine-readable formats, while appropriately safeguarding privacy, confidentiality, and security.

This refers to human-readable data that is written in mark up language so that machines can also read it for disabled. Publishing public data in open, standard machine-readable format is a best practice (good operating practice).

For more information see Web Records.

Streamlining Service Delivery and Customer Service

This directs agencies to set service standards and use customer feedback to improve the customer experience.

Consult with the agency to ensure you’re complying with their standards.

As with most things, use common sense and, when in doubt, consult with the agency in question.

For more information, see Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service.

* These requirements apply to executive departments and agencies and their public websites. Check the specific law to see if it also applies to the judicial or legislative agencies or to intranets.

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