Citizen satisfaction with some federal Web sites lags

Private sector and government Internet experts said that improving the user-friendliness of federal Web sites will help agencies save money by driving people online for answers rather than to more expensive call centers and local offices.

Citizen satisfaction with some government Web sites is lagging, according to the latest E-Government Satisfaction Index from the American Customer Satisfaction Index, a project by the University of Michigan, the American Society for Quality and the consulting firm CFI Group. The index, sponsored and analyzed by the online strategy firm ForeSee Results, measured 53 government sites in the third quarter of this year.

The index showed that 41 percent of the Web sites' ratings dropped from the previous quarter, while 33 percent improved. Analysts believe these mixed results may be an indication that government Web site improvement may be leveling off, as private sector Web sites continue to improve.

Larry Freed, an online satisfaction expert and CEO of ForeSee Results, described the choices people make on the Internet as "accelerated Darwinism," because users can open multiple Web sites at once and just as easily close them. "With choice, people will go where they're satisfied," and if they cannot get their answers from a Web site, they will call or visit local offices. "The competition is more expensive for the government to administer," Freed said.

He spoke at a Federal Consulting Group e-government citizen satisfaction summit Tuesday, along with other government and private sector Internet gurus. At the summit, program and content managers, Web masters and librarians were encouraged to continue redesigning and customizing government portals to perfect their user-friendliness.

"We have a pretty small 15-inch window in which we can answer our customers' questions," Freed said. "E-government sites must either adopt a similar pace of improvement or risk declining satisfaction ratings and defection to less convenient and cost-efficient channels."

According to Forrester Research estimates, a phone call to a center costs $33, which means Web sites "are going to save [their agencies] big bucks," said Tim Evans, a program analyst in the Social Security Administration's Office of Electronic Services. "These are numbers we can take back to our budget offices to justify our frequently asked questions site."

According to Evans, the next big jump for government Web sites is to improve their ability for online transactions. "We aren't there yet," Evans said. "Our government transactions are well below the commercial sites."

Index numbers support that theory, showing that satisfaction with government transactions lags behind the private sector, with a cumulative score of 69.2 out of 100. Comparatively, Amazon.com, considered the "gold standard" by index analysts, scored an 88 in its last measurement.

Anne Kelly, CEO of the Federal Consulting Group in the Treasury Department, said government Web sites have to make do with existing resources and limited budgets, which has led to a satisfaction decline in some cases, but "there are instances where e-government sites have managed to press ahead in spite of the considerable challenges they face." Those challenges include limited budgets and the fact that government agencies, by their nature, do not generate revenue.

Ron Oberbillig, director of Performance Measures for the Federal Consulting Group, said return on investment is the bottom line and that government Web sites should start to exceed private sector Web sites in satisfaction.

"It's hard to get enough funding," Oberbillig said. "That is why we use [the index], because it shows the benefit of spending the money on Web sites."

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