Friday, October 12, 2007

DHS Changes CSAT Registration Manual Again

Yesterday DHS made two changes to their web site; they updated the Chemical Security Assessment Tool page to include the updated link to the new CSAT User Registration User Guide. This .pdf file provides instructions for a new user of the CSAT to register. This new version (ver. 1.2.3) does not appear to have any significant differences from ver 1.2.2., but anyone trying to maintain a current library of CFATS documents should probably download the new version of the manual whether or not they have already registered with CSAT. If nothing else, it will make you look diligent when the DHS inspector comes to your site to look at your SVA and SST.


Back in the bad old days before the internet, when a government agency made a change to a document like this they printed up and distributed a change document. That document was a brief cover letter describing the changes made to the document and a copy of each page in the manual that had been changed. The change document was sent out to each “known” holder of the document; in a case like this the change document would have been sent to each facility registered in the CSAT system. The person receiving the change document would substitute the appropriate changes in the document and file a copy of the cover letter. When an inspector wanted to check up on someone’s document management they would look to see that all of the current changes were posted to the documents; presumably properly posting the changed pages ensured that people would have read and understood the changes to the document.


Today, of course, we have gotten much more efficient. Since the government is not actually printing these manuals any longer, they have no incentive to print and distribute a change document. All an agency has to do is to post the new document to the appropriate web sites and distribution is made. A new date is put on the cover page of the document and a new version number is issued. Sincethe most up to date version of the document is on the agency web site, all a user has to do is to go to the site and open/download the document. The new system appears to be very efficient.


The only problem is that not everyone is going to go back to the government web site each time they need to use a manual. First off, government web sites can be very complex and the navigational shortcuts are few and far between. It does little good for users to keep shortcuts to government web pages on their computer since web page changes invariably come with changes to the web page address. So, unless someone readily remembers the series of links to click to get to a document, it is easier to download the document and either print it out, or keep it on a local computer. In either case, if there is not some notification made when a change is made to that document, the user will continue to rely on an outdated document.


While in the case of this particular document it does not really make any difference (once you register a facility if CSAT you should not need to use this document again), this does illustrate a flaw in the US Government’s current document handling procedure. It does not appear that at DHS (though I certainly do not believe that they are alone in this area) that there is due care being taken to communicate changes to informational documents. DHS does generally to a good job of updating the page date at the bottom of each web page, it is only site-geeks like me that make copies of each page of a web site so that we can go back and track those changes. The normal site user would never know that a change had been made to this .pdf document.


If I were in charge of the DHS web page, I would have a “Documents” page link on the Chemical Security web page (that page address doesn’t usually change). On that page I would list each of the current documents referred to on the site with a date and version number of the current documents. When there was a change to the document, I would include a brief description of what was changed. This would serve two functions; first it would provide ease of access and secondly one point checks for updatingdocuments. Easily accessed documents are more likely to be used live, thus ensuring that the most current document is being used. Allowing for ease of verifying document versions would allow people that wanted their own copy to easily verify that they are using the most current information.


Fortunately for me, I am not in charge of their site. Now people have to rely on site-geeks like me to know what is happening on the web site.

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