Two separate, recently released surveys of the quality of federal government Web sites and e-government found some striking strengths in performance, including in comparison with private-sector sites. But they also revealed shortcomings in key areas, such as search engine capability.
The U.S. E-Government Website Quality Report, by ActiveStandards and WelchmanPierpont, gave government sites relatively high marks for accessibility and usability. The report also cited a majority of sites performed poorly in search engine optimization.
Meanwhile, another new report, the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) E-Government Satisfaction Index, conducted in collaboration with customer-experience analytics firm ForeSee, showed that citizen satisfaction with federal news and information Web sites actually exceeded customer satisfaction with their private-sector counterparts.
Federal Web sites have long trailed private sector sites in customer satisfaction but a recent slide for the e-business sector has helped break the trend, according to ACSI and ForeSee. However, overall satisfaction with e-government still lags behind satisfaction with private-sector e-commerce, according to the report.
Dave Lewen, vice president of public sector business at ForeSee said that when evaluating their online experience, customers hold expectations that are no different for public or private sector Web sites. “As far as they are concerned, it’s all the Internet and they expect all of their experiences to match their best experiences,” he said. “The challenge for e-government is to try to match the best of the best, using fewer resources. The third quarter results show that it is possible.”
He cautioned, however, that the index represents 106 government Web sites and Web services and “there are many more federal initiatives that need to be measuring, tracking and improving the digital citizen experience.”
ACSI founder Claes Fornell also warned that while it is encouraging to see that some public sector Web sites are outperforming the private sector, it would be “foolish to cut e-government budgets under the mistaken impression that less is more.”
The ACSI study, based on nearly 300,000 surveys collected in the third quarter of 2012 for the ACSI Index, also showed that within the government, e-commerce and transactional e-government Web sites typically score higher than news Web sites and main department sites and portals in customer satisfaction.
The leading federal Web sites in the e-commerce/transactional e-government category included six sites from the Social Security Administration. On a 100-point scale, SSA’s iClaim, Retirement Estimator, and Extra Help with Medicare Prescription Drug Costs received ratings of 92, 91 and 89, respectively. Three other SSA sites rounded out the top six, followed by sites hosted by the Federal Trade Commission, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. and the Treasury Department.
The report from ActiveStandards, which produces Web site quality management software, and WelchmanPierpont, a specialist firm in Web governance development, was more narrowly focused than the ACSI study.
Based on an analysis of a representative sample of 200 pages from 43 federal Web sites, the study focused on three key quality areas: accessibility, with special attention to Section 508, the law that requires federal Web sites to be accessible to people with disabilities; usability; and search-engine optimization.
The study found that 63% of the sites are “reasonably compliant” with Section 508, though 28 percent had achieved only the lowest compliance band. “With new, more stringent, accessibility regulation on the horizon, Web managers within federal organizations will need to start widening their focus to include a new range of requirements,” the report suggested.
The top federal Web site for accessibility was the Energy Department’s Energy.gov site, with a 9.3 rating out of a maximum benchmark score of 10, followed by the Federal Aviation Administration (9.1); the Homeland Security Department (9.0); the National Institutes of Health (9.0) and the Treasury Department (8.5).
In the usability category, federal sites also scored well, with more than 60% achieving at least moderate levels of compliance with the study’s usability criteria. The most significant finding was that 27 percent of the pages tested contained at least one broken link, a circumstance that has “a serious impact on the user experience and erode trust and confidence,” according to the report.” The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency posted the highest score in the usability area at 9.7.
The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency was also the top site in the search engine optimization category with a score of 9.6. However, the study identified search engine optimization as the poorest performing area for federal sites under examination. Two-thirds of federal sites were in the lowest compliance band and fewer than 5% reached the top rating.
“Optimizing content for findability in search engines is a vital part of ensuring users are able to access the full value of the government’s online services,” the report concluded.
The consistent application of metadata is an Office of Management and Budget requirement and “can help improve search results and structure content so that it can be more widely disseminated,” the study recommended.