Benchmarking U.S. Government Websites

November 27, 2017
A year after ITIF first collected data on the most popular federal websites, more than nine out of 10 continue to fall short of government and industry standards for design and development.

One of the most important ways that the U.S. federal government provides access to government services and information is through its more than 4,500 websites on more than 400 domains. Last year, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) reviewed almost 300 of the most popular government websites and published a report in March 2017 documenting our findings. At the time, we concluded that many federal government websites were not fast, mobile friendly, secure, or accessible. This report assesses progress federal agencies have made since the initial report. While a few agencies have addressed specific issues identified in the previous report, overall federal agencies have made little progress at modernizing government websites. 

In this report, ITIF reviews almost 500 of the most popular federal websites and finds that approximately 91 percent failed to perform well on at least one of the metrics analyzed. For comparison, in the initial report 92 percent of the websites reviewed failed to perform well on at least one. It is incumbent on the Trump administration to address these failures and ensure the federal government can provide all Americans with secure and convenient access to online government services and information.

This second edition of the “Benchmarking U.S. Government Websites” report provides a detailed analysis of how U.S. federal websites are performing six months after the release of the initial report. In the initial report, ITIF reviewed 297 federal websites. In this edition, we analyzed 468 of the most popular federal websites. Of these sites, we analyzed 260 of them in the initial report. Those that we did not include in this report, we either omitted because they no longer ranked among the top one million sites globally or an agency had removed, archived, or merged the website with another one. This report shows that most of the websites reviewed in both years continue to fall short of requirements set by the federal government, as well as industry standards for web design and development.

This report uses publicly available tools to assess website performance in terms of page-load speed, mobile friendliness, security, and accessibility. 

We analyzed two metrics for page-load speed: desktop page-load speed and mobile page-load speed. For desktop page-load speed, 63 percent of federal websites passed the test compared to 73 percent in the initial report. For mobile page-load speed, 27 percent of federal websites passed the test compared to 36 percent in the initial report. 

Many federal websites also did not fare well with mobile friendliness. Just 61 percent of websites were mobile friendly, compared to 59 percent in the initial report. Common problems included not using proper metatags to configure the website for mobile devices and links or buttons that were too small for easy use on mobile devices. 

As in the initial report, federal websites generally scored well on security. In this edition, we reviewed the same two security features: Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS)—a common standard for encrypted Internet communications—and Domain Name System Security (DNSSEC), a set of protocols that add security to domain name system (DNS) lookup and exchange processes. To test for HTTPS, we used a tool that analyzes websites’ Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificates (which underpin most HTTPS connections). Seventy-one percent of the reviewed websites passed the SSL test, up from 67 percent in the initial report. To test for DNSSEC, we used a tool to determine whether reviewed websites enabled this security feature. We found that 88 percent of federal websites enabled DNSSEC, down from 90 percent in the initial report. Sixty-four percent of websites passed both the SSL and DNSSEC tests, up from 61 percent. 

Finally, 60 percent of the reviewed websites were accessible for users with disabilities, compared to 58 percent in the initial report. Issues with accessibility range from poor contrast on websites to a lack of labels, which may prevent the website from being easily navigated by someone using a screen reader, assistive technology commonly used by individuals who are blind.

Federal government websites still require significant improvement. Federal agencies should prioritize building and maintaining fast, convenient, secure, and accessible websites. Doing so will help ensure that the many Americans who routinely use the Internet to access government services and information can continue to do so. There are multiple steps policymakers can take to improve federal websites:

  1. Launch a website modernization sprint to fix known problems.
  2. Require federal websites to meet basic desktop and mobile page-load speeds.
  3. Launch a website consolidation initiative.
  4. Require all federal agencies to report website analytics.
  5. Appoint a federal CIO to lead federal IT modernization efforts.
  6. Encourage nonexecutive agencies and branches of government to adopt federal website standards and practices.

Editor's Note: This report was updated on November 29, 2017 to remove a website that should have been excluded from the analysis and correct minor grammatical and typographical errors.

Benchmarking U.S. Government Websites