By Kennedy Maize
Washington, D.C., July 3, 2013 – As a daily reporter for and an editor of energy publications, online and offline, I deal with a lot of industry and government websites. The typical bell curve applies in my experience. Some are really quite good. Some stink. Most are somewhere in the middle.
But my nomination for the worst government web site that I have to try to deal with frequently is the U.S. Department of Energy (www.doe.gov). It is almost impossible to find anything topical or timely at the DOE’s digital Potemkin village. There’s lots of façade, but little substance underneath.
Let me provide a recent (but far from the only) example. I was looking for the applications to DOE for the second round of grants to purveyors of small modular nuclear reactors. They were due at DOE on July 1 and I was looking for them on July 2 (that’s what daily journalism is all about, folks). Could I find anything? Nada.
I tried, Lord (or whatever deity floats your boat) knows, I tried. I knew from earlier broad searches (thank you, Google) who had applied. But I was looking for details that would be contained in their filings at the agency and its nuclear energy program. The web page for the SMR program itself was useless (it made reference to the upcoming second round, without any specifics, and left me with the impression that it was constructed weeks or months ago and never updated).
So I tried the website’s search engine (which I suspect is Google-derived). Nothing. I used multiple search terms and Boolean operators (which generally don’t work anymore, but you’ve got to try). I’ve been around computers and search engines for many, many years. I’m not a neophyte. Again, nada.
Of course I know that DOE is a big agency, so maybe its website doesn’t get the attention it might in a smaller edifice. But my latest travail is simply the most recent in a long line of often useless and mostly frustrating encounters with the DOE site. I’m searching for insight and data and not the self-congratulatory fluff that clutters the site. The agency has to do a better job of providing access to hard information and less self-reverential black-slapping.
I’d be willing to bet DOE spends millions of dollars (yours and mine) on its website, no doubt employing a contractor or contractors to do the work. We ink-stained wretches (remember when journalists and publications actually employed ink?) tend to call them “Beltway bandits.”
And just to demonstrated that I’m being fair – or at least trying to be fair – let me mention two of my favorite government websites. First is the Energy Information Administration (which is part of, but apart from, DOE). Its web site is well-organized, accessible, and best of all, I can find what I need when I need it. Next in line: the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Again, it is well-organized, and well laid out. In addition, the NRC site faces challenges for those seeking information, because of its legacy computer document archiving system ADAMS, which I’ve been using since the 1980s (and needs to be scrapped as soon as the agency can figure out how to do so).
I haven’t gone into private-sector and interest group websites in this rant. I may do that later, but I will say, in advance, that none I’ve come across are as bad as the DOE offering. It reeks, although I may have a lower standard for judging business and interest groups, which have little public interest obligation in providing access to their basic data.
I suspect my views of the existence of DOE – that we don’t need it, never have, and it should vanish as soon as possible – are well known. I’ve held them publicly and written about them for over 30 years. But as long as the agency exists, it should focus far more attention that it does today on giving the public that pays for the agency access to its public information. (And don’t get me started on how the agency abuses its classification authority.)
So what is your experience? Am I off the page on DOE’s online presence? Do you have comments or other nominees? Let me know.