How the Biden Administration Can Protect Federal Environmental Information

February 18, 2022 | 12:00 pm
this photo is of an endless-seeming stack of white organizers, taller than a person, stretching on both sides of a wooden floor--implying archivesUla Kuźma/Unsplash
Gretchen Gehrke
Co-founder and web monitoring program leader, Environmental Data and Governance Initiative

In a healthy democracy, the public needs to be able to trust information disseminated by its government. Federal agencies often communicate with the public through websites, and so the accuracy, accessibility, and transparency of information on the websites of federal environmental agencies matters for the health of democracy and the planet. Former President Donald Trump’s norm-shattering presidency exposed longstanding vulnerabilities in the policies that govern digital federal information. If the Biden administration is serious about rebuilding public trust and bolstering scientific integrity, it must address these gaps in federal website policy.

The Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI) kept a close eye on website data under Trump. In our report Access Denied and our paper Visualizing Changes, we documented how the Trump administration manipulated federal environmental information on websites. Again and again, the Trump administration censored language about climate change, removed public information right before public comment periods, and generally made information harder to find. In our recent report Crossing the Line, EDGI identifies troubling patterns in Trump-era EPA news releases, which promoted a partisan, political, and deregulatory agenda at the expense of informing the press and public.

In its first year, the Biden administration has taken some steps to restore digital information removed under Trump, as shown in EDGI’s most recent report Work in Progress: Governance of Digital Environmental Information In the Biden Administration’s First Year. These efforts are encouraging, but in the absence of clear, protective policies, public information remains vulnerable to censorship and manipulation by future administrations. As the Biden administration enters its second year, it must strengthen information policies, not just information itself, to ensure integrity and rebuild greater public trust.

We need better web governance

The Biden administration must address the lack of policies protecting the accuracy, accessibility, and transparency of information found on federal agency websites. Strong policies can help ensure that federal agencies do the following:

  1. Make public information accessible
    Information on federal agency websites should be easy to find, and the websites should be easy to navigate. Agencies should clearly link to relevant information—particularly information that provides context for the purpose, effectiveness, and enforcement of, and adherence to, rules.

    Agencies should post information about upcoming regulatory matters on all relevant webpages so that the public is aware of opportunities for civic engagement and participation in environmental decision-making. The scientific basis and historical background behind regulations should also be provided.
  2. Preserve public web resources
    When an agency is actively debating, soliciting feedback on, or writing a new rule or policy, the agency should not remove public resources related to the proceeding. If resources become outdated during that time, this should be clearly and transparently communicated and links to updated resources provided.

    Agencies should provide a searchable database that catalogs and describes website updates. This would facilitate public understanding of evolving issues and assist with information restoration efforts. Agencies should also archive any resources that are removed. The EPA hosts a large online archive, but many agencies do not, and EPA’s archived resources are not easy to access. Any URL that has been removed from active use should link to the latest archived version of that page, rather than simply registering as a “Page Not Found,” as often occurred under the Trump administration.
  3. Create meaningful resources to build civic and scientific literacy
    Regulatory resources, especially resources labeled as guides or guidelines, should include summaries, definitions, and graphics tailored to the general public, as well as links and citations for more specialized resources for experts.

    It’s especially important to include the scientific basis for proposed and current environmental regulations, scientific evidence regarding potential impacts of regulations, and the science underlying regulatory cost-benefit analyses.
  4. Ensure the integrity and accuracy of information in agency news releases
    Creating effective regulations for agency news releases is a challenge. For one, news releases are explicitly exempted from EPA’s current information quality guidelines. Additionally, news releases are inherently political, making them particularly vulnerable to political manipulation. However, policies that ensure the protection and integrity of information disseminated by news offices would still be valuable, including those that would prevent: a) the promotion of private media interests; b) the use of news releases for campaigning; or c) the publishing of inaccurate information. In our report Crossing the Line, we recommend six tenets for federal agencies to consider when publishing news releases, including these three.

EDGI’s documentation of the Trump administration’s abuses of environmental website information underscores the urgent need for the Biden administration to create and implement federal web governance policies. To learn more about EDGI’s recommendations, read the Access Denied report, Visualizing Changes paper, and Crossing the Line report.

Marcy Beck, Shannan Lenke Stoll, and Alejandro Paz also contributed to this post. Marcy works in strategic communications and analysis with the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative. Shannan is the communications coordinator for the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative. She holds an MS in environmental studies. Alejandro is the outreach and data librarian at UCS. He holds an MS in library and information science.