Can you have Government Information without a Government? (updated)
Update 2: O'reilly Radar provides a good rundown of the topic. Basically, no one really knows exactly how a government shutdown will affect government websites... yet.
Updated: While more than 800,000 federal employees face a furlough beginning today, it appears that government websites will only stay online in a limited number of circumstances. The Office of the President has issued a memorandum with further instructions for agencies (16pgs. 8.06 mb .pdf).
The material from the memorandum relevant to government websites:
Q3: What is the guidance on keeping Government websites up during a lapse in appropriations if the costs of maintaining the website are funded by a lapsed appropriations source?
A3: The same standards described above would apply. The mere benefit of continued access by the public to information about the agency's activities would not warrant the retention of personnel or the obligation of funds to maintain (or update) the agency's website during such a lapse. However, if maintenance of the website is necessary to avoid significant damage to the execution of authorized or excepted activities (e.g., maintenance of the IRS website may be necessary to allow for tax filings and tax collection, which are activities that continue during an appropriations lapse), then the website should remain operational even if its costs are funded through appropriations that have lapsed. If it becomes necessary to incur obligations to ensure that a website remains available in support of excepted activities, it should be maintained at the lowest possible level. For example, in the IRS case above, the IRS website would remain active, but the entire Treasury Department website would not, absent a separate justification or a determination that the two sites cannot not feasibly be operated separately.
Q4: What notice should agencies provide to the public regarding the status of their websites during a lapse of appropriations?
A4: If an agency's website is shut down, users should be directed to a standard notice that the website is unavailable during the period of government shutdown. If any part of an agency's website is available, agencies should include a standard notice on their landing pages that notifies the public of the following: (a) information on the website may not be up to date, (b) transactions submitted via the website might not be processed until appropriations are enacted, and (c) the agency may not be able to respond to inquiries until appropriations are enacted.
QS: What if the cost of shutting down a website exceeds the cost of,maintaining services?
AS: The determination of which services continue during an appropriations lapse is not affected by whether the costs of shutdown exceed the costs of maintaining services.
Q6: If websites are down, will agencies be able to extend deadlines for applications that would otherwise have been due during the lapse in appropriations?
A6: To the extent permitted by law, agencies may extend deadlines for activities, as necessary to compensate for the period of the lapse in appropriations and the unavailability of the website.
The United States may find out at the end of this week if a budget agreement can not be reached. For more than 100 years the Federal Depository Library Program has provided American citizens with information and publications from and about their government. As more and more of the information produced by the United States Federal Government is available online and is born digital, citizens and the libraries that make up the FDLP are more and more dependent on government websites to access and preserve information.
Neither the GPO (responsible for the distribution of authentic government information through FDsys.gov) or the FDLP have issued official statements as to how a government shutdown might affect electronic services. Different agencies are reporting different plans and overall there is no clear picture of what will happen. According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management individual agencies will determine who works and who doesn't during a furlough of government employees. What that means for the employees responsible for branch and agency websites is unknown.
It is likely that static pages will remain functional, however, dynamic content, updates, and responses to the public may not continue in the event of a furlough.
The only thing for certain at this point is that the Federal Government is much more reliant on the internet as a means of distributing information and services today than it was during the government shutdowns of the mid 1990s. How a government shut down will affect the dissemination of government information is unknown, but we might be on the verge of finding out how it should be handled.