Equal Access to Information = Democracy?

Just posted over on the VoxPolitics blog where I have been so kindly asked to contribute.

One of the simplest ways in which the Internet toolbox can empower 'average people' is by making it easy for them to get their hands on information which was only once available to elites. Freedom of Information legislation also works on the same principle: The more information citizens have, whether it be minutes, draft bills or bids from suppliers, the more they are able to hold their government to account.

So far so good. But anyone trying to find anything other than the most current information can struggle. This week I was looking for a call for e-voting proposals written by the UK government in 1999. I'd seen it online several times but hadn't thought to keep a copy. Every tool I used Google, Yahoo, the Internet Archive or Ministry search engines failed to find the document. It was lost in a non-functional COI press release archive as far as I can tell. In e-democracy circles it's pretty much a given that our government's track record on search is apalling – hence TheyWorkForYou, TheGovernmentSays and so on… These are all well and good but they are only providing us with more searchable archives from around 2001 onwards. What can we do to make the past more searchable before link rot sets in?

In another example of attempting to make government more accessibly by providing more information, the EU has launched its new portal Your Europe. Good idea… very poor implementation. The site seems to ignore all the good practice people working on the web have built up over the past 10 years… in looking for a simple factsheet I had my language reset to Czech. It's just horrible to use. At least it's valid HTML though!

Big question: Why is it so hard for governments to make good, simple, easy-to-use websites like TheyWorkForYou or Google? If we don't figure this one out we're going to keep seeing time and money wasted on what could be valuable e-democracy tools.