The State of U.S. Government Websites
The U.S. government operates more than 6,000 websites on over 400 government domains. These websites are one of the most important ways that citizens, businesses, and others get information and access services from federal agencies. To better understand how federal agencies are meeting best practices for their websites, ITIF released a report that evaluated 297 of the most popular federal websites, and then assessed each on four metrics: page-load speed, mobile friendliness, accessibility, and security. Using benchmarks derived from federal requirements and test results for the most popular nongovernment websites, ITIF found that 92 percent of federal websites fail at least one measure. ITIF hosted an event to present the report and discuss its recommendations with a panel of public sector IT experts and executives.
While the federal government requires its websites to be mobile friendly, just 59 percent of reviewed websites were mobile friendly, and 64 percent failed to meet the benchmark for page-load speed on mobile devices. John Landwehr, Adobe’s vice president and public sector CTO, argued that this finding is particularly striking given the rapid increase in the number of Internet users who access online resources exclusively from a mobile device and the decrease in users accessing federal resources via desktops. David Yoon, Akamai’s senior director for public sector operations, noted that agencies should account for variation in mobile Internet users’ screen sizes, bandwidth, and browsers when seeking to improve mobile friendliness.
The panel agreed that the federal government should focus its resources on making online federal resources more citizen-centric.NIC’s Vice President of Marketing Chris Neff and Amazon Web Services’ General Manager of Civilian Government Operation Brett McMillen both called for a focus on “citizen-first” website design, which improves a website’s usability by streamlining information and structuring resources based on users’ needs. In addition, Neff said governments could move resources to the cloud, consolidate websites, and standardize their online presence to reduce redundancy and citizen confusion. To determine which parts of a government website help citizens and which do not, Landwehr urged agencies to dig deeper than page-hit analytics and look at the pages from which users are most likely to leave the website.
By focusing web development on what citizens need, agencies could do more than just improve how the public interacts with them. Landwehr and McMillen both predicted that making websites more citizen-centric would save money in the long run by reducing the need for expensive channels that facilitate government-citizen interaction (e.g., phone banks). As an example, McMillen hailed Singapore’s philosophy that “if a citizen has to come see us or talk to us, IT has failed.”
One way that the federal government can improve how agencies offer digital services is by balancing handing down mandates with providing resources to agencies. Yoon argued that the barriers to improving websites are not technological or even primarily financial, but bureaucratic. Based on state governments’ experiences with these internal roadblocks to reform, Neff said website reform will progress in “fits and starts”—episodes of rapid activity followed by long periods of slow activity—rather than continual progress with sustained attention from agency leadership. Yoon agreed, arguing that without resources, training, and a mechanism for measuring progress and ensuring accountability, modernization efforts are likely to be uneven at best.
Furthermore, clear and enforceable minimum performance benchmarks are important to promote advances. For example, according to Neff, state governments make the most progress in areas like website accessibility when these benchmarks are clearly defined and enforced. McMillen and Neff pointed to the Obama administration’s data transparency and website consolidation push, respectively, as more examples that the Trump administration can learn from to accomplish this goal. For example, the previous administration issued a mandate to make federal data accessible via APIs while also providing resources to agencies to enforce it.
If the weaknesses of federal websites documented in the ITIF report are to be resolved quickly and effectively, the Trump administration should prioritize making websites mobile friendly and citizen-centric by providing guidance and resources to agencies, while also ensuring that agencies are held accountable for their websites. Americans are spending more of their lives online than ever; it is time for the federal government to catch up.