In website reshuffle, federal committee makes reports on collecting sexual orientation and gender identity data inaccessible

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Links from the Federal Committee on Statistical Methodology website that previously directed to SOGI statistical methods reports now direct to “under construction” pages

If you visit the website for the Federal Committee on Statistical Methodology (FCSM), you’ll find that many of the links for reports lead to dead pages or PDFs that say, “this page is currently under construction.” Among the inaccessible resources are statistical policy working papers, as well as reports pertaining to collecting data on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI), which were live on a previous version of the site.

Also gone is the FedStats website, which currently redirects to the FCSM homepage. FedStats, which claimed to be “a trusted source for federal statistical information since 1997,” was quietly sunset in February 2018, removing troves of aggregated links to statistical policy documents and statistics websites along with it. Some of the compiled links from FedStats appear on the FCSM website, but most do not.

We’ve detailed the changes to these websites in our new access assessment report, but how do they affect users of these websites?

First, the statistical policy papers and reports on the FCSM website are relevant to ongoing public and policy debates about politically charged data collection issues. Removing access to the SOGI reports on the FCSM website comes at a time when federal agencies have tried to remove SOGI-related questions and have decided to delay the collection of SOGI-related data.

Second, the removed FedStats website contained relevant content to some academic researchers, who first notified Sunlight of the site’s removal, and university libraries still list FedStats as a resource.

So, why are these resources currently inaccessible? Neither the General Services Administration nor the Department of Education returned a request for comment, and it’s hard to say why because there’s been limited public explanation offered. Below we provide an explanation for how these websites have been changed and suggest recommendations for better information governance practices.

Re-launch of the FCSM website, and inaccessible statistics resources

The website for FCSM — a federal interagency committee created by the Office of Management and Budget “dedicated to improving the quality of federal statistics” — used to be hosted on the fcsm.sites.usa.gov/ Web domain. But, recently, that Web domain was removed and the FCSM website was relaunched on the domain for the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) — an entity of the U.S. Department of Education “for collecting and analyzing data related to education” — where the URLs for the FCSM website now redirect.

While the General Services Administration did announce in 2017 that it would no longer host Sites.USA.gov websites, which included the previous FCSM site and FedStats, there has been no explanation for why the new FCSM website is hosted on the NCES Web domain. The FCSM website, which serves efforts across agencies, is focused on statistical methods but doesn’t center on education statistics in particular.

It’s worth noting that we’ve decided to label this change as a “re-launch” of the FCSM website. We’ve chosen this phrase because it appears that the content of the website has not simply been moved in its entirety. As mentioned above, many links for reports on the new FCSM website do not lead to live versions of the reports, as they did in the past when the FCSM website was hosted on its own Web domain.

Specifically, the website’s “Interagency Reports” page lists links to and descriptions of seven statistical policy working papers, including four on topics related to measuring SOGI in data collection. On an August 2, 2017 version of the page hosted on the old FCSM Web domain from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, all listed links led to live PDFs of the corresponding reports. The URLs corresponding to the links on the old Web domain still lead to live PDFs of the reports.

But those are not the same URLs linked on the NCES version of the page. The links for each report on the current “Interagency Reports” page all lead to PDFs that say, “this page is currently under construction.” Why have these reports been removed from the website?

Again, without an explanation, it’s difficult to determine the answer. But in the last year, agencies have attempted to remove SOGI-related questions from surveys and delay measuring SOGI data.

Last year, NBC News reported that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) removed SOGI questions from the National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants, only some of which have been reinstated. In January, the Children’s Bureau at HHS delayed the effective date that the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting must start collecting data on whether children in foster care identify as LGBTQ. Julie Kruse from Family Equality Council told us by email that this delay, “comes in the wake of a federally funded study showing a dramatic overrepresentation of LGBTQ youth in foster care as well as worse outcomes in care for these youth compared to non-LGBTQ peers.”

Removal of the FedStats website

Although FedStats did not host any data itself, it was an aggregator of links to various agency resources used by researchers and the public. Resources on the website included reports with data on federal statistical programs and links to raw statistical data hosted on agency websites.  It also provided a search function to find federal statistical information sources, although we weren’t able to evaluate the search engine before it was removed.

The notice on the NCES version of the FCSM homepage indicates that, like the old FCSM website, the new URL for the FedStats website is https://nces.ed.gov/FCSM/index.asp and that the “FedStats content is under construction.” It notes that “[i]n the meantime, users may find www.data.gov helpful,” and that “[t]he statistical policies and standards that were on FedStats are available on the Office of Management and Budget’s Statistical and Science Policy website, which was recently brought back online: https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/information-regulatory-affairs/statistical-programs-standards/.”

The agency has not, however, otherwise proactively communicated about or explained the reduction in access to reports that were linked from the FedStats or FCSM websites. We also haven’t been able to find any of the currently inaccessible resources within the data.gov domain.

Recommendations for improving information governance and communication practices

While we can’t account for the removal of Web resources described above, there are a few ways the FCSM website relaunch and FedStats website removal should have been better handled and communicated to users:

  1. FCSM should have put up a notice on its website, in advance of its move, explaining why it was being moved. Similarly, FedStats should have put up a notice on its website ahead of its removal to explain where the public could find the most up-to-date resources that the website aggregated.
  2. The NCES’s FCSM website should explain why the old FedStats URLs are now redirecting there.
  3. The NCES FCSM website should explain what information from the old FCSM website has been changed.
  4. A public archive of the FedStats website should be provided, and a link to those archives could be linked from the new FCSM website.
  5. Perhaps most important is the ongoing issue of lack of access to resources. All inaccessible content should be made available on the NCES FCSM website.
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