SSA sets mature example for Web sites

It’s difficult to make a best-practices list for government Web sites because they
all have different constituencies and different missions. Many agencies maintain one Web
site for interacting with citizens, another for conducting agency business and a third for
trading information with other government organizations.

What’s best practice for one type of site might not work for others. But certain
successful strategies span multiple Web operations because they ensure easy use, logical
navigation and timely data.

The Social Security Administration’s main Web site is a good example of how to
extend Web reach through custom applications. It provides fast public access to a wealth
of data collected by SSA.

Every government site whose mission is to serve citizens, create individualized reports
or answer a host of frequently asked questions would do well to copy some of SSA’s

The first thing a visitor notices is that the home page loads fast in spite of about 15
graphics. Check the size of the images, and you’ll see why. SSA limits colors and
keeps images small—most are smaller than 3K.

The servers have two 45-Mbps T3 lines. Webmaster Bruce Carter acknowledged that so much
bandwidth might sound like overkill, but it gives the site room to grow and ensures that
it won’t be slowed down by sharing a connection with a new site,, set
up in association with the National Partnership for Reinventing Government [GCN, April 5, Page 11].

SSA places breaking news right on its front pages. Carter said the home page used to
have a Latest News button that drew little traffic. After he moved the headlines up front,
people clicked through and read the news.

Visitors can find the most important pointers logically displayed at the upper left
side of the screen. They point to information about disability, Medicare, benefit payment
schedules and downloadable forms.

To cram more choices into this high-visibility area, SSA has added pull-down menus.

Unlike many government sites, SSA does not promote itself heavily on the front page.
Agency information is easy to find in the About the SSA area. But there are only a few
short pointers to information about the agency’s history and accomplishments. The
modest approach informs visitors about the agency’s reputation without shoving it in
their faces.

The SSA site represents a best-practices model because of its customized service. The
Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement officially documents an individual’s
lifetime earnings and estimates Social Security benefits. Citizens can enter personal
information online through a secure connection and receive a statement by mail.

They can also use online forms to order a Benefit Statement (Form 1099), a Benefit
Verification Statement or online claims forms. Such queries are sent to the appropriate
field office.

Citizens also can search for their local office. But when I tried the office locator, I
was told the service was available only during business hours. That makes no sense on a
Web site that a user can tap into at any hour.

Now in development is a new application for ordering replacement Medicare cards.
Although the Medicare program is run by the Health Care Financing Administration, Carter
said, SSA is responsible for taking claims for Medicare eligibility and follow-up
services. Seniors can also call a toll-free 800 number for card replacements.

Site visitors can download software, such as a Benefit Estimate Program that calculates
personal and family benefits based on several variables. Employers can download SSA’s
AccuWage pay-reporting software.

Government agencies maintain huge databases, much of which is confidential. They cannot
simply open the gates and let the world in, but they can develop applications that allow
access to limited data, and they should offer online request forms for it.

SSA’s main Web server does not now interact with SSA mainframes. But associated
application servers do interact, checking the agency’s main database of Social
Security numbers and generating reports.

The server applications are in C++. SSA managers have investigated rapid application
development environments such as Cold Fusion from Allaire Corp. of Cambridge, Mass., but
for now C++ is an easy way to interact with the mainframes, Carter said.

In the future, most government Web sites are going to have to develop applications that
give the public better data access, custom reports or online applications. In many cases,
the work involved will be handed off to companion application servers that relieve
pressure on the main server and act as front ends to legacy databases.

SSA’s example shows that a highly customized system is unnecessary. Just do a
little C++ coding, and you can roll out government services through your existing servers.

The site’s Verity search engine from Verity Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., might play
a bigger role in the future, Carter said.

“We’d like to take advantage of some of the other functions,” he said,
such as sending the spider out to other sites to collect an index of retirement
information or setting up a notification system. Citizens would enter an e-mail address on
a form and be notified when new information became available. 

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at

+    The site has an excellent range of information, in English and
+    SSA wisely includes the Top 10 services on a home page list. Each also
appears in other sections, but they are collected here for easy browsing—a great idea
for any federal site.
+    There is good use of frames in the site map area, with an index on the
left and pointers to each subsection on the right.
+    Online forms and documents are easy to find from the front page. But
can the general public be expected to download the necessary Adobe Acrobat reader? It
would be a good idea to convert the forms to straight Hypertext Markup Language.
–    A search box is needed on the front page. Repeat visitors want to
cease drilling through sections and start searching immediately.
–    There’s no online benefits application. At the moment,
there’s only a page that lists what evidence is needed and points to local offices.
–    Contacts are difficult to find. I had to hunt several minutes to
locate even a webmaster e-mail address.
–    The good-looking main logo would load faster if reduced in size.

Web servers: Two Sun Microsystems Sparc 400 Es running SunSoft
Solaris, each with 512M of RAM and 9G storage

Application servers: Hewlett-Packard NetServers.

Internet connection: Dual T3 lines

Search engine: Verity

A total of 39, including:

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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