Dozens of wildfire reports disappeared from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire’s) website as this year’s fire season began.
Thousands of water science reports vanished from the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) website.
More than 2 million documents, ranging from environmental impact reports to internal human resources guides, went missing from remote corners of the California Department of Transportation’s (Caltrans) website.
The documents are disappearing from public view as California state departments work to comply with a 2017 law aimed at improving compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The law was meant to ensure all Californians could apply for jobs and find vital information on the state sites. The overhaul has proven costly and labor-intensive, with the result that some departments are choosing to permanently take down documents rather than pay to make them machine-readable or otherwise accessible.
Some researchers say removing the documents diminishes state government transparency.
“You certainly want to have documents being accessible to the disabled and the blind, but if doing that causes these documents to become unavailable for many years or even permanently to the public, I think there’s a trade-off there that’s pretty large,” said Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis.
State officials say the changes are making it easier for members of the public to find what they want on the sites without having to sort through as much clutter.
In 2015, a state audit found serious accessibility problems on four government websites.
Neither the California Department of Human Resources (CalHR) website nor the California Community Colleges website were equipped for screen readers that read questions aloud for visually impaired people, so some of them couldn’t take job exams online or apply for college.
People who couldn’t use a computer mouse couldn’t create an account to file taxes on the Franchise Tax Board’s site.
Based on the audit, former Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, R-Dublin, proposed a law to revamp the websites.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown signed Baker’s bill into law in October 2017. The law gave departments until July 2019 to bring their sites into compliance under a process that would be set by the California Department of Technology (CDT).
Some departments are running late, but Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration has made the updates a priority, said state Chief Information Officer Amy Tong, director of CDT.
Tong said the changes are not just aimed at making the sites ADA-compliant; they’re meant to make the sites more user- and business-friendly.
“The message from the administration has been very clear,” she said. “Transparency in high-interest business items has to be preserved.”
Caltrans, one of the state’s largest departments, has removed nearly 2.5 million documents from its website as part of its accessibility overhaul, according to information provided by spokesman Matt Rocco.
The department is updating about 13,000 documents — containing about 350,000 pages — to ADA standards and plans to repost them, said Mike Nguyen, the department’s chief technology officer.
The department used Google analytics to identify which documents people were looking at. If anyone opened a document from Nov. 1, 2017, through Nov. 30, 2018, the department scheduled it for ADA updates, Nguyen said.
The department also selected documents it is required to post by law and documents that program managers considered essential for operations, he said.
The department made popular features, such as traffic cameras, more front-and-center on the site, Nguyen said.
“We treat this as a very important initiative to make sure we meet the intent of the law, and it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
The department has paid about $6 million to contractors to make the documents and thousands of Caltrans Web pages accessible under the law, Nguyen said.
In addition to the spending, 700 employees at the department have spent a total of about 75,000 hours on the effort, he said.
“It is a huge undertaking for the large and complex organization that we have,” Nguyen said.
Cal Fire is going through a similar process, said department spokeswoman Alisha Herring.
The department took down historical fire statistics reports, known as “red books,” dating back to 1943, along with thousands of other documents, Herring said.
The reports for recent years, including those on the wine country fires of 2017, were referred to regularly by reporters during last year’s fire season for historical context.
The department is updating the reports from 2012 through 2017 and plans to repost them by the end of the year, Herring said. That’s also the time frame for the department to decide what to do with the older reports, some of which were produced using typewriters, she said.
The department has updated more than 900 pages on its websites to comply with the law, she said. She did not have a cost estimate.
“This is a priority for the department and something we will continue to move forward with and remediate and make sure our department is completely accessible and compliant because of the standards,” she said.
DWR has removed about 100,000 “historical, infrequently accessed documents” from its site, according to spokeswoman Erin Mellon.
Among the documents are state water management plans from years past and scientific documents related to Delta water, according to Lund.
Tracy Collier, a member of the Delta Independent Science Board, said frequency of access might not be the best guiding principle for decisions about keeping research documents.
“Once these documents have been made public, we should maintain access,” Collier said. “You never know when somebody’s going to come back and want to know what’s going on.”
Tong described the adjustment to the ADA standards as an evolution.
Early in the process, she said, “it’s reasonable to think that some information may be pulled unnecessarily and some may be left there unnecessarily.”
Departments have been responsive to public requests for information, providing documents directly or reposting them, Tong and the researchers said.
The California Department of Rehabilitation, whose director, Joe Xavier, is blind, has been a key part of the process.
Xavier said simple websites that minimize unnecessary navigation improve all users’ experiences, whether they have a disability or not.
California Government Operations Agency spokeswoman Lynda Gledhill said the Department of Veterans Affairs started looking at its website analytics a couple of years ago. The department noticed that the most popular searches on its website, by far, were for information on veterans license plates.
The department doesn’t handle those, but used the information to provide a link to the Department of Motor Vehicles site, Gledhill said.
“It just shows if you’re not asking the question about what are people looking for, you’ll never know what to provide them,” she said.
Tong said the department hasn’t estimated overall costs or staff hours for the project.
Moving forward, ADA accessibility will be standard practice, she said.
“It’s really helping people to understand that making information accessible to people with various needs is part of our way of doing business.”
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