The public's affection for federal government Web sites waned for the third straight quarter during the first quarter of 2008. The score of 72.4 (out of 100) for the e-government portion of the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index was a half point lower than last quarter and the lowest reading since 2005.
The dip in scores is due to several factors, including uncertainty about the upcoming presidential election and administration transition, according to Larry Freed, CEO and president of Foresee Results of Ann Arbor, Mich., which published the report. Overall, 42 percent of federal Web sites reported lower scores compared to last quarter, while 33 percent reported higher scores and 26 percent indicated no change. Two portals, which are department home pages or entryways to other sites, had the sharpest decline in satisfaction -- the GSA's Forms.gov and the USDA's home page received the lowest scores, 58 and 59 points, respectively.
"E-gov sites are experiencing challenges; we are back to a level of satisfaction we saw in 2005, and the big question is why," said Freed. He suggested that citizens' expectations of government Web sites are largely driven by their experience with commercial sites such as Google.com or Amazon.com, which could account for the public sector's lower scores. Freed said citizens expect the same ease of use, search capability and navigation that they would find at those Web sites.
So rather than reflecting an actual decline in service, Freed said the dip in scores more likely reflects users' rising expectations. "For the first time, government has to keep up with the private sector in terms of service levels. They are just not used to moving at the same pace, with the same focus and intensity as the private sector."
Nevertheless, the government continues to make progress in certain areas, particularly those related to health care and Social Security. Freed said that health-related Web sites excel because, despite the greater competition from commercial sites like WebMD, the government is a very credible source of information for health issues. "There is great confidence in the information you are reading," he said.
Social Security falls under the index's category of e-commerce/transaction sites, which was the only category to report a significant increase (1.5 percent) in satisfaction. The e-commerce sites allow citizens to perform transactions or make purchases online, such as applying for Social Security benefits. The increase in satisfaction indicates that citizens want to conduct business on government Web sites in addition to using them as information sources.
"Internet for the government is really a true win-win -- a win for citizens because they can get info when and where they want," said Freed. "It also allows government to provide better quality services for lower costs. I'm not sure that it's been embraced [by the government] as much as it could be."