Satisfaction with agency Web sites remains on plateau

Federal Web sites essentially are treading water in their attempts to keep pace with private-sector portals, according to one expert who analyzed new e-government data.

Due to bureaucracy and budgets, there is no one specific element in federal online performance that has made great strides, said Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee Results. He reached that conclusion after studying third-quarter data from the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index on e-government. The index was released Tuesday.

Federal e-commerce sites registered the largest improvement last quarter but dropped by nearly 3 percent in the third quarter, according to ACSI. These sites let citizens apply for benefits, request services and buy goods, like bonds and treasury securities.

The ACSI results indicate that federal sites are continuing a plateau in citizen satisfaction, with overall happiness slipping 0.5 percent to a total score of 73.3 on ACSI's 100-point scale. For the past nine quarters, aggregate satisfaction has hovered between 73.3 and 74.

"Expectations are being set not by other agencies but by experiences on Yahoo and Amazon," Freed said of private Web portals. Unlike call centers and other citizen services, Web sites require constant upgrades, he added. Commercial sites "keep raising the bar."

The biggest gap between the private and federal sectors is in the area of search, he noted. While the government works hard at improving navigation and recognizes the importance of precise search functionality, Freed said search experiences on private-sector sites are generally much more helpful and focused.

Seventy-nine percent of e-government sites mentioned search as their first or second priority, according to ACSI.

The good news: The premier federal sites continue to build on their online assets. The 19 top-caliber sites this quarter have a history of superior performance, with scores of 80 or higher.

And "there's a lot of sharing of internal best practices," Freed said. "That's one of the advantages the government has over the private sector."

ACSI Founder Claes Fornell observed, "An investment in online citizen satisfaction will pay itself off as more citizens will choose the online channel over more costly alternatives."

Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University and the author of numerous e-government reports, said he was not surprised by the poor e-government satisfaction results this quarter. "I think we're in a status quo period as far as government technology," he said.

The federal government has not prioritized information technology spending for the past few quarters, West added.

But some agencies are starting to add features for submitting and reading online feedback on proposed regulations, rather than just posting mailing addresses for public comment, he noted.

West agreed that search functionality is one of the greatest weaknesses of government Web sites. "The problem today is information overload."

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