Internaut: Don't get complacent on e-government

Shawn P. McCarthy

Finally, e-government initiatives are producing measurable results. But there's still a lot of work to do.

Three years ago, e-government was a buzzword that meant different things to different people. The E-Government Act of 2002 changed that by setting specific goals for federal agencies.

Now it's generally accepted that e-government equals direct, online interaction with citizens. That means people can not only find government information online, but also fill out forms, apply for licenses, make payments and more'all via the Web. People now expect this level of service from every agency, and many agencies have made large strides toward meeting that expectation.

In late December, the Government Accountability Office issued its report stating that the Office of Management and Budget and other agencies had made significant progress toward fulfilling Titles I and II of the E-Gov Act. Title I has to do with establishing an Electronic Government Office to oversee e-government initiatives; Title II spells out specific e-government services, such as Web portals, that agencies should implement.

According to the GAO report, OMB, the General Services Administration and some others have met at least three-quarters of the major requirements. But unresolved issues remain. The E-Gov Act contains five major sections, including one devoted to information security; the GAO report analyzed compliance with only the first two. (To read the GAO report, go to www.gcn.com and type 352 in the GCN.com/box.)

In addition, some important requirements of Title II have not been addressed. For example, GSA was required to conduct a study on disparities of Internet access to online government services, but the study was never funded. OMB was also supposed to examine the potential for IT to improve crisis preparedness and emergency response.

Despite shortcomings, the gains have been real, and citizen satisfaction is growing. Last fall, the American Customer Satisfaction Index, a joint project of the University of Michigan, the American Society for Quality and consulting firm CFI Group, surveyed several thousand users and measured their satisfaction levels with government Web sites. Taking into account 54 government sites, the group reported a satisfaction score of 71.2 out of a possible 100, a 1.2 percent increase over the previous quarter and a 5.4 percent increase from a year ago.

Satisfaction dipped when visitors could not find the information they sought or when they could not immediately use government sites to fill out forms, etc.

The E-Gov Act was effective because it set specific goals and held agencies' feet to the fire, but this progress is in danger of slowing. Even ACSI noted that although overall e-government satisfaction was up, many sites earned lower or flat marks, signaling a possible 'leveling-off of Web site improvement.'

Full funding is needed to attain e-government goals, and the act itself is in need of an update. E-government needs to take into account the requirements of the Federal Enterprise Architecture, and the definition of e-government should be expanded to include telephone-based services and subscription data feeds.

Substantial progress is reason to be proud, but it's not a reason for agencies to rest on their laurels.

Shawn P. McCarthy is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC of Framingham, Mass. E-mail him at smccarthy@idc.com.

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