January 20, 2022 – Today, the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI)’s Website Monitoring Team releases Work in Progress: Governance of Digital Environmental Information In the Biden Administration’s First Year. The report analyzes changes in governance of environmental information found on federal agency websites at the one year mark under President Biden. It assesses the extent to which the new administration has addressed harms to public information inflicted by the Trump administration and also made forward progress toward improved website governance.
Throughout its first year, the Biden administration has conveyed the importance it places on public information. One week into office, President Biden issued the Executive Order “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad” requiring agency leaders to develop a report on how to expand and improve public informational resources on climate change. Websites are the primary medium of communication from federal agencies to the public, and in the past year, many federal agencies have demonstrated attention to their websites.
The Biden administration has made important restorations of public information harmed under the Trump administration. In the most dramatic example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) re-launched its “Climate Change” website in March 2021, which had been blocked from public access four years earlier in April 2017. The EPA also updated its “Climate Change Indicators in the United States” and “Climate Change Impacts Risk Analysis” websites, among others. However, these restorations and updates have not been comprehensive. The Trump administration’s extensive alterations of federal webpages and its pattern of removing information related to regulations targeted in its deregulatory agenda created substantial work for the Biden administration to undo, and several resources have yet to be restored.
There are also signs of substantial forward progress that go beyond the restoration of public information. One improvement is that many agencies are more clearly making connections among related issues. For example, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) re-launched its “Climate Change” webpage and for the first time acknowledged its responsibility in addressing climate change as oil and gas operations on land managed by the BLM account for 25% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) updated its “Climate Change” website for the first time in at least five years and drew connections between conservation and climate change. Agencies are frequently providing more detailed regulatory history of issues to help the public understand the status and evolution of policies. The Biden administration has also updated language across federal agencies by, for example, using the term “climate crisis.” Each of these trends for public information contributes to a promising trajectory for public information under the Biden administration.
Yet major gaps still remain in policies governing the management of public information found on websites, opening this information up to future censorship, manipulation, and removal. EDGI’s research during the Trump administration demonstrated the gaps in public information policy, as the Trump administration censored climate change language and stripped public information in advance of public comment periods. EDGI has recommended the development of web governance policies that address website content, structure, and access. Policies should, 1) promote the incorporation of resources that advance environmental and scientific literacy and civic engagement, and 2) keep these resources publicly available through active websites and accessible archives. The Biden administration has stated its intention to rebuild public trust in the government in multiple executive orders, and EDGI urges the administration to strengthen information policies, not just information itself, to ensure its integrity and usher in greater public trust.
CONTACT: Report authors are available for interview. To set up media interviews or for other inquiries, please contact Shannan Lenke Stoll, ShannanStoll.firstname.lastname@example.org.