Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Audit of Online Government Documents in Parliament

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) issued "Online Availability of Government Entities' Documents Tabled in the Australian Parliament" 25 May 2009 (Report Number: 37). Government agencies are required to keep online, and publicly available, the documents they present to Parliament. The Audit office found that 90% of documents were online, but 95% of these were in PDF format and did not meet guidelines for accessibility to the disabled. Somewhat paradoxically, the ANAO's own report is in PDF and so appears not to conform with the guidelines which the report recommends be used. The Auditor thought AGIMO’s web publishing guidelines were not at fault.

You can download the Audit_Report_37 in PDF, or view a web summary as a
Audit Brochure. Below are the key findings:

Key Government entities’ compliance with online publishing policy (Chapter 2)

The ANAO undertook a desktop review of a sample of papers tabled from 2000 to 2008 to assess their online existence, ease of discovery online, online accessibility, and consistency between the online and printed versions.

Overall, our testing indicated that the proportion of the tabled papers examined found online has improved from 54 per cent in 2000 to 89 per cent in 2008. This improvement is due to a number of factors, including an increased focus on the delivery of online services by government entities.

However, no more than 90 per cent of the tabled papers examined in any one year were available online. The main reasons that this level has not increased is that either some individual government entities still do not have a web presence or that they are not fully aware of the requirements to publish tabled papers online. Further, MOG changes have caused restructures of entities and their websites. In essence, the merger or creation of a government entity and the subsequent new website can result in documents or links to such documents being inadvertently removed. In either case, web users are hindered or prevented from finding documents online.

The ease of discovery of an online document was quite high, having increased from 89 per cent of documents examined in 2000 to 100 per cent in 2006, although it declined slightly in each of 2007 and 2008. The tabled papers we found online were generally able to be discovered through publicly available search practices. Where discovery was difficult, the cause was usually poor website design that hindered navigation by web users.

Online accessibility was examined in two parts: providing access to web users without the need to use proprietary software and providing access to web users with a disability. In the first part, the recommended formats are HTML which any web browser can view; and plain text or RTF which any text reader or open source word processing software can view. The use of these formats to publish documents online has varied considerably since 2000. In particular, of the documents we examined in 2008, about 25 per cent were in HTML and less than five per cent were in RTF.

In contrast, over 95 per cent of the documents we examined in 2008 were in PDF, being a proprietary software format. Although PDF can have a free reader associated with it, a link to a reader was only supplied for about 65 per cent of documents.

The second part of online accessibility pertains to the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 that requires government bodies to provide equitable access to people with disabilities, where it can reasonably be provided. To give effect to the requirements of the Act, the AHRC endorsed a standard15 on web accessibility. This standard recommends the use of HTML or text based formats. As mentioned, our testing has indicated that the use of HTML and text based formats is low. In addition, a number of government entities only publish documents online in PDF, which does not comply with this standard.

The authorised version of a tabled paper is the printed (hardcopy) version that is tabled in Parliament. It is important to ensure consistency between the printed and online versions. Our testing of online Parliamentary Papers for 2007 found over 90 percent of documents were consistent with the printed version. Based on our analysis, the ANAO considers that there are a number of useful practices to ensure consistency between the online and printed versions of a document. They include, but are not limited to: maintaining communication between the print and online publishing functions; ensuring that the document author verifies the online version prior to web publishing; and placing the final PDF version provided to the printer online.

Although the level of results achieved indicated an improvement in online availability of tabled papers, the ANAO considers that further improvement can be realised. Government entities should review the level and nature of their online publishing activity and assess the risks of them not complying with the online publishing requirements related to tabled papers. Specifically, entities with a high risk of not complying with the requirements, such as those having no web presence, those producing multiple documents for tabling in Parliament each year, or which have been subject to a MOG change, should address any shortcomings in a cost effective way.

Overall, increased government entity compliance in the above matters would benefit from further cooperation between the Department of Finance and Deregulation (Finance), the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) and the Departments of the Parliament to confirm respective roles and responsibilities.

Government entities’ online publishing practices (Chapter 3)

Based on the results of our desktop review, we selected entities for detailed fieldwork that exhibited a medium to high level of compliance with the Government’s online publishing requirements to allow this audit report to convey practices that would lead to better reporting by all government entities.

Each of the audited entities had sound online publishing practices. In particular, each entity had:

  • a range of informative policy and guidance material to support staff performing online publishing functions;
  • well-defined processes for publishing documents online, including controls to restrict access to online publishing functions to authorised staff; and
  • processes and practices to help manage and provide assurance about online content, including obtaining advice as to the timing of the tabling of documents in Parliament.

In addition, each of the audited entities had controls in place to assist in managing the validity of their online content. In particular, all but one of the entities had a formal content management system (CMS). The ANAO’s audit report on Government Agencies’ Management of their Websites discusses entities use of specialist software to manage content.16

Only one of the audited entities specifically referred to the requirements for publishing tabled papers in its online publishing policy and procedural documentation. The ANAO considers that those government entities that have multiple documents tabled in Parliament would benefit from emphasising this requirement in their online publishing policy and procedural material. Further, in some entities the monitoring and reporting of web-related statistics was ad-hoc.

Overall, we considered that AGIMO’s WPG (which informs entities of the Government’s web publishing requirements) was relevant, accessible and easy to use. However, the following opportunities were identified to improve the level of guidance in the WPG about the online publishing of tabled papers and improve entities’ awareness and understanding of the requirements:

  • specify the requirements relating to tabled papers with greater clarity;
  • provide advice on the period of time that government entities must maintain documents online; and
  • provide advice on whether an entity can archive electronically its Parliamentary documents after a number of years.

Further, the ANAO considers that stronger alignment between AGIMO’s online publishing requirements and PM&C’s guidance for presenting documents to the Parliament could improve the effectiveness of entities’ online publishing practices for tabled papers.

15 The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which is a series of documents that explains how to make web content accessible to people with disabilities.

16 ANAO Audit Report No.13 2008–09, Government Agencies’ Management of their Websites, available from <>.

Summary of entities' responses

Each of the audited entities, including AGIMO, agreed with, noted or supported the three recommendations. In addition to the audited entities, we sought comments on the draft report from four other entities mentioned in the audit, the Department of the Senate, the Department of Parliamentary Services, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Australian Human Rights Commission. Where provided, entities’ responses to a recommendation are included in the body of this report, and entities’ general comments are in Appendix 1. ...

From: "Online Availability of Government Entities' Documents Tabled in the Australian Parliament", Report Number: 37, Australian National Audit Office, 25 May 2009

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