E-gov on the upswing

As any baseball fan will attest, one hit does not a hitting streak make. Nevertheless, federal webmasters can take heart from the latest report of the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) E-Government Satisfaction Index.

According to the report, for the first time in a year, the score of federal Web sites rose, albeit marginally, by 0.7 percent to a score of 72.9 in March on the index's 100-point scale.

ACSI has been used since 1999 by more than 100 agencies and departments as a standard metric for measuring citizen satisfaction. The index ' produced by the University of Michigan, in partnership with the American Society for Quality (ASQ) and CFI Group, an international consulting firm ' provides ratings derived from online surveys of randomly selected Web site visitors.

'E-government has stopped the bleeding for now, in terms of citizen satisfaction,' said Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee Results, the company that collected the survey data, and author of the report. 'But it remains to be seen if this is a blip or the beginning of a positive trend.'

Freed said that although government sites have improved greatly since ACSI tracking began in 2003, they face several major challenges. First, they contain an enormous amount of information, which makes navigation difficult. And although government sites don't compete directly with well-funded commercial sites such as Amazon.com or Netflix, 'citizens' expectations are formed by their experiences on the Web, not necessarily their experiences with other government sites. So the bar is very, very high.'

Another major obstacle to greater user-friendliness of federal Web sites is an institutional reluctance to employ tracking cookies. 'Just about every agency has a no-cookie policy,' Freed said.

Freed said he recognizes concerns that many Web site visitors have. 'You don't want the IRS to know who you are if you're looking into what the penalty is for violating a tax code, right? All of a sudden an auditor shows up at your door'.'

Freed said he expects the ban on cookie use to ease at some point. 'The anonymity, I think, is good,' he said. 'But it has some handcuffs on these government sites. I would expect that over time, government may readdress the policy. You can have cookies that track and still be very anonymous. It can be done.'

Another hurdle is the number of government sites, each designed by a different team. 'In a perfect world, you might have a scenario where you have a consistency across government sites that would make it seamless,' he said. 'You would navigate your way through sites not knowing that you're going from one owner to another owner. That's very difficult to pull off with something as large as the federal government. But the use of sites like USA.gov really helps a lot.'

New technologies could make government Web sites even easier to access and use, assuming they are implemented. 'A lot of improvements that we're seeing in the private sector are very difficult for government to embrace,' he said. 'Social networking, consumer-generated content, things like that ' we're starting to see some government Web sites embrace them.'

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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