Survey says sites still lack accessibility

Survey says five sites are A-1

  • Patent and Trademark Office's www.uspto.gov

  • Health and Human Services Department's www.hhs.gov

  • Education Department's ED.gov

  • Treasury Department's www.ustreas.gov

  • Navy's www.navy.mil
  • Sampling of 148 federal sites find few fully comply with 508

    Of 148 federal Web sites sampled recently by a university professor, fewer than two dozen fully complied with Section 508 rules.

    Only 13.5 percent of the sites analyzed using the Bobby tool from the Center for Applied Special Technology of Peabody, Mass., had no Section 508 errors, said Genie N.L. Stowers, director of San Francisco State University's public administration program, who conducted the Bobby reviews.

    Another 41 percent of the surveyed sites had one or two accessibility errors, and 7.5 percent had six or seven such errors, noted Stowers' survey report, 'The State of Federal Websites.'

    Some people have questioned the usefulness of Bobby and other software tools for assessing Web sites' compliance with the Rehabilitation Act Amendments' Section 508. The 1998 law required agencies to make their Web sites and IT accessible to disabled users by June 2001.

    'Every tool has its problems and its issues,' Stowers acknowledged, but there must be some benchmark against which to measure performance. She added that her chief goal wasn't to point out agencies' failures but to generate interest in Web site usability issues generally'even beyond providing access to disabled users.

    Along those lines, Stowers' report noted that federal sites have failed to bridge 'the other digital divide' to citizens who lack experience with the government and with the Internet in general.

    Stowers, associate dean of the university's College of Behavioral and Social Science, said she has been tracking e-government since 1995.

    People who lack ready access to computer technology and the Internet tend to be the least familiar with how government is organized and how to get information and services, Stowers said.

    A poorly designed government site that makes sense only to people familiar with an agency adds another barrier, she said.

    'Most people, even educated people, may know generally about government, but they don't know how a federal agency is organized,' said Stowers, whose study was funded by the PricewaterhouseCoopers Endowment for the Business of Government.

    Stowers said no one is sure whether the noncompliant sites 'adhered to the policy last year and have since slipped as a result of constant changes in content and design, or whether they ever complied.'

    Good organization

    As an example of good site organization, she singled out the General Services Administration's FirstGov portal, 'not just because it is the gateway to federal information but because of its thoughtful design and content.'

    Her report ranked five federal sites as tops in content, services and user assistance:
    • The Patent and Trademark Office site, at www.uspto.gov, scored highest in Stowers' survey. She said its online databases, application forms and document purchasing service are valuable to PTO's multiple audiences and constituencies.

    • The Health and Human Services Department site, at www.hhs.gov, earned praise for its graphical GrantsNet and its KnowNet performance-improvement initiative.

    • The Education Department got high marks for the ED.gov portal.

    • The recently redesigned Treasury Department site, at www.ustreas.gov, received kudos for its e-commerce applications and downloadable forms.

    • The Navy site, at www.navy.mil, won praise for its sheer quantity of information and for such services as Lifelines for military families, Life Accelerator for career seekers, and Virtual Naval Hospital for service members at isolated duty stations.

    Rounding out the top-scoring 12 sites in Stowers' report were those of the Agriculture Department, Mine Safety and Health Administration, Indian Health Service, Veterans Affairs and Defense departments, Small Business Administration and Railroad Retirement Board.

    Stowers did not rank all 148 surveyed sites because she thought it would be better to take a more positive approach. Nevertheless, she said, she has received a couple of dozen e-mail queries from federal workers, some of whom thought their agencies' sites had been misjudged.

    Bernard A. Lubran, a project manager with the Treasury Department's Federal Consulting Group, said he liked Stowers' overall theme that agency sites should be as good as those in the private sector.

    A government site 'has to be fresh and high-quality to keep people's interest,' Lubran said. The Federal Consulting Group sponsors interagency programs on customer service and runs the www.customerservice.gov site.

    'We're finding there is a lot of interest, in every agency we speak with, in getting to know who their customers are,' Lubran said.

    Among her recommendations, Stowers said agency IT officials need to make accessibility, customer privacy and transaction security top priorities.

    To convey legitimacy, she said, page designers should make it easier to find contact information, date of last site update, and policies on privacy and security.

    The full report is available in Adobe Portable Document Format at endowment.pwcglobal.com/pdfs/StowersReport0802.pdf. A comparison of federal Web sites with state and local government sites will be ready later this year.

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