- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 19, 2012

It was one of President Obama’s marquee pledges for cutting waste — an administration team under the direction of Vice President Joseph R. Biden would slash the proliferating number of federal websites in half within a year.

Last week marked the year’s end, and Mr. Obama has fallen well short of the target, having cut only 281 domains, or fewer than a third of his original goal.

The pruning is moving at a slow rate despite statistics indicating that many of the pages on the government’s websites generate little or no traffic, including at least one site on which a majority of the pages had not attracted a single click in the previous half-year prior to the review.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden announced their “Campaign to Cut Waste” last June amid the spending and debt debates on Capitol Hill. Mr. Obama even signed an executive order to add some heft to the drive, and Mr. Biden said they were “putting Washington on notice” that no waste was acceptable, even in cyberspace.

The effort has stalled, though. Some agencies said they have cut enough, and other offices — including one overseen by Mr. Biden — are adding Web domains to the government’s list.

The website failure is the latest in a series of government-cutting goals the administration has made, to much fanfare, but for which critics say it has shown less enthusiasm in the follow-through.

Sen. Tom Coburn, the top Senate waste-watcher, whose office requested a Congressional Research Service report detailing the website shortfall, said it’s becoming a pattern.

“Like many well-intended calls to action, the administration’s campaign to cut waste in the budget was, unfortunately, short-lived,” said Mr. Coburn, Oklahoma Republican. “If we can’t do something as simple as consolidating websites that promote eliminating wasteful spending, we are going to have a very tough time tackling bigger challenges.”

Domains are the top-level pages, such as www.whitehouse.gov and www.fbi.gov. Last year, when Mr. Obama set his goal, 1,759 domains were registered as .gov sites.

In the first three months, the government made good progress by eliminating nearly 150 sites, but the pace then stalled. Fewer than 100 were cut during the subsequent six months and fewer than 50 in the final three months, leaving the total at 1,478.

The administration wouldn’t comment on the holdup, nor would officials talk about setting a new target date for meeting the president’s goal. But they took an optimistic view about the work going forward.

“Agencies have eliminated or identified for elimination nearly 600 Web domains, but there is still more work to be done,” Danny Werfel, federal controller at the Office of Management and Budget, said in a statement provided to The Washington Times. “Agencies are continuing to drive further efforts to eliminate unnecessary .gov domains and at the same time enable Americans to access information and services of the federal government more easily than ever before.”

Progress on other fronts

The website reduction was the most prominent of the president’s pledges, but not the only one. Mr. Obama called for other savings in contracting and basic operations.

Progress has been made on those. White House officials say they have cut billions of dollars out of administrative costs, are selling off unused government property and are on track to meet the president’s goal of saving $8 billion by the end of this year.

They are also proceeding with a broad initiative to try to clean up and consolidate government websites and offer more services for mobile phones, officials said.

Candi Harrison, a former website manager for the Department of Housing and Urban Development who now blogs on government Web issues, said the problem isn’t so much the number of domains, but rather a generally chaotic approach to the Web.

Many departments and agencies don’t have officewide Web policies, according to plans they submitted as part of the waste-cutting initiative. Ms. Harrison said, that means information gets spread across different offices and departments, and makes it tough on the customers.

“What causes/sustains this problem? To be blunt, egos,” she said in an email.

She said executives want their own websites for their initiatives, and those in charge of government websites don’t say “No” enough. She also said executives have no incentives to work with colleagues in other agencies to streamline the federal government’s Web profile.

Ms. Harrison said some of her friends looked at Web stats and found that a high percentage of pages are getting little or no traffic — in one case, 60 percent of pages had zero views in six months prior to the review.

“Editing, editing, editing is the key,” she said. “And then merging/consolidating is the next step. And then making sure what’s left is written in plain language so customers can understand it once they find it.”

Website proliferation

As for the domain-cutting, progress has been uneven, and the lure of websites is tough to resist.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was created in July 2010, has registered 10 domain names since it opened its doors last year. All of the domains are close to the bureau’s name, apparently in a bid to capture potential permutations, such as consumerfinance.gov, consumerfinancial.gov and consumerprotection.gov.

In a statement to The Times, the agency said the duplication is warranted “to help ensure consumers can find the CFPB site.” The bureau also said it has no plans to cull the list.

The Education Department has done the most of any office by reducing its domain names from 34 to 17. Among big federal agencies, the Federal Communications Commission was second, going from 14 to eight, while the Homeland Security Department cut 38 percent, from 58 to 36.

Several offices have gone in the other direction.

The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which the White House itself created, has added a Web domain in the past year: www.accountabilityandtransparency.gov. The site does not appear to be active, so it’s not clear what it would add to the collection of nine other domains run by the board, including aandt.gov, ratb.gov and atb.gov.

The White House didn’t respond to questions about the board’s new site.

The Federal Reserve System also created a site over the past year named fedcentennial.gov, one of several domains the central bank has reserved in anticipation of commemorating its 100th year in 2013. The board said it is keeping those options for now as it tries to figure out how to showcase the Fed’s history on the Internet.

The Fed is also an independent office with its own funding, leaving it in a somewhat different position from most executive branch departments and agencies.