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Benchmarking U.S. Government Websites

March 8, 2017

The public relies on federal websites to access information and services from the U.S. government, yet 92 percent of its most popular sites fail to meet basic standards for security, speed, mobile friendliness, or accessibility.

One of the most important ways that the U.S. government provides Americans access to government services and information is through more than 6,000 websites on more than 400 domains. Unfortunately, many of these websites are not fast, mobile friendly, secure, or accessible. In the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation’s (ITIF’s) review of almost 300 of the most popular federal websites, approximately 92 percent failed to perform well on at least one of these benchmarks. 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 report provides a detailed analysis of how U.S. federal websites are performing overall in terms of page load speed, mobile friendliness, security, and accessibility. To gather this information, ITIF analyzed 297 of the most popular federal websites using publicly available tools. This report shows that many federal websites fall short of requirements set by the federal government, as well as basic industry standards for web development.

This report uses two metrics for page load speed: desktop page load speed and mobile page load speed. While 78 percent of websites passed the desktop page load speed test, most websites failed the mobile page load speed test. Only 36 percent of the reviewed websites passed the speed test for mobile devices. Websites often failed this test because they failed to implement common optimization techniques, such as compressing images and prioritizing loading the part of the website visible without scrolling first.

Many federal websites also did not fare well on mobile friendliness. Just 59 percent of the reviewed websites were mobile friendly. Common problems included not using metatags to properly configure the site for mobile devices, illegible font sizes, and buttons and links that were too small for easy use on mobile devices.

Federal websites generally scored high on security. We reviewed 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 analyzed websites’ Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificates (which underpin most HTTPS connections). Two-thirds of the reviewed websites passed the SSL test. To test for DNSSEC, we used a tool to determine whether reviewed websites enabled this security feature. We found that 90 percent of federal websites enabled DNSSEC, and 61 percent of websites passed both the SSL and DNSSEC tests.

Finally, only 58 percent of the reviewed websites were accessible for users with disabilities. Issues with accessibility ranged 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.

The federal government should build fast, convenient, secure, and accessible websites, so that anyone can access government services and information online. Unfortunately, this report finds that the federal government must make substantial improvements to meet this goal. There are a number of steps policymakers should take to ensure the federal government can improve its websites:

  1. The White House should launch a series of website modernization “sprints” to fix known problems with the most popular government websites.
  2. The White House should mandate that federal websites meet page load speed requirements.
  3. The White House should require all agencies to monitor and share detailed website analytics.
  4. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) should launch a website consolidation initiative.
  5. Congress should encourage nonexecutive agencies and other branches of government to adopt federal government website standards and best practices.
  6. The White House and Congress should establish a capital fund for federal agencies to upgrade their IT.

EDITOR'S NOTE: ITIF has received a great deal feedback on this report, and we have been encouraged that it has sparked a constructive dialogue about the need to improve the performance of federal websites. In the course of discussing the issue with federal stakeholders, it has come to our attention that our analysis omitted approximately one-quarter of the federal websites that we intended to include as part of the methodology described herein. These omissions do not change our overall finding that nine out of 10 of the most popular federal websites fail to meet basic standards for security, speed, mobile friendliness, or accessibility, because the data we used for those tests still represent an appropriately robust, random sample of these websites. Nevertheless, we intend to include all of the excluded websites in the next edition of this report.

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