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Most Federal Websites Are Still Bad, But That Can Change

Most Federal Websites Are Still Bad, But That Can Change

October 17, 2023

It’s been over 20 years since the passage of the E-Goverment Act—the law specifying that federal agencies use Internet-based IT to enhance citizen access to government services—and yet few federal websites are well-designed, mobile-friendly, or accessible for people with disabilities. Customer satisfaction with federal services overall remains low, particularly when compared to the private sector.

It’s not clear whether federal agencies will ever bother to try to achieve best-in-class websites, but they should still try. To address this long-standing problem federal agencies should immediately prioritize implementing the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (21st Century IDEA)—a bipartisan law Congress passed in 2018 to improve the digital experience for government customers—to modernize their websites and digital services.

In 2022, the General Services Administration (GSA) launched a redesigned Federal IT Dashboard, a website that “serves as the front-end data visualization homepage for the public consumption of [federal] IT performance health and management data.” At the time, the website’s primary functionality was the “IT Portfolio Dashboard,” which allows interested stakeholders to view details and track the progress of various federal IT investments. Since then, GSA has incorporated other features and data into the dashboard, including “Federal Website Metrics” covering accessibility, web security, design and analytics, and mobile friendliness. This change follows a recommendation ITIF made in 2017 for the federal government to expand its website analytics program.

Except for web security—a measurement of how federal websites use secure connections that are commonplace across most websites—these metrics generally reveal the disappointing state of federal websites government-wide. Congress amended Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act in 1998 to require federal agencies to develop, procure, maintain, and use electronic and information technology (EIT) that is accessible to people with disabilities. According to the Federal IT Dashboard, however, only 30 percent of websites have no detectable accessibility issues.

Similarly, GSA’s Technology Transformation Services developed the U.S. Web Design System (USWDS) to establish government-wide standards for federal websites. Less than 20 percent of federal websites use code from USWDS, contributing to inconsistent and varying user experiences. For example, looks and feels a lot different than

USWDS-powered websites are also mobile-friendly, meaning the website works and offers comparable user experiences across devices. According to Google’s “Mobile Friendly Test” reported on the Federal IT Dashboard, only a little more than half of federal websites appear to be mobile-friendly.

The Federal Website Metrics align with customer satisfaction trends in federal service delivery, which reached historic lows last year. Notably, President Biden has referred to the poor ranking of the federal government in Forrester’s Customer Experience Index and aspires for the federal customer experience to be on par with the private sector. And yet, federal agencies are also not doing enough to measure customer satisfaction with digital services. GSA’s Digital Analytics Program (DAP) provides an out-of-the-box analytics tool for federal websites, but only 40 percent of federal websites participate in DAP.

Websites are the front door to many services in the digital era, and right now many of those doors are shoddily built for federal services. Congress passed 21st Century IDEA in 2018 primarily to address such concerns with federal digital services. The law focuses on ensuring that federal digital services are easy to use, mobile friendly, data-driven, and accessible. Agencies fully complying with 21st Century IDEA would address many of the issues the Federal IT Dashboard metrics highlight.

Most federal agencies still have not complied with the law. OMB did finally release critical guidance that hopefully will accelerate the implementation of 21st Century IDEA across the federal government, including standards for mobile-first design, accessibility, visual design and branding, search optimization, and content design.

Modern customers expect good websites that support quick and easy digital experiences across any device, and it is far past the time that federal websites deliver this experience by fully complying with 21st Century IDEA. Only time will tell.

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