Feds' sites boost public service

American Consumer Satisfaction Index Federal scores

Gauging whether federal agencies have improved their use of the Web to interact with citizens is not easy, but basic user satisfaction can at least be a starting point, experts said.

The E-Government Satisfaction Index study, led by the University of Michigan Business School and ForeSee Results Inc., measured citizen satisfaction with 22 federal sites that ranged from the State Department Web portal to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Mapfinder service. The study used the same American Customer Satisfaction Index methodology that is used to rank commercial site satisfaction.

The average e-government score of 70.9 is higher than the satisfaction with the offline government service. This shows that the Internet is not only an important channel for agencies to use to communicate with citizens, but also one that citizens prefer.

Unlike commercial sites in which one company is competing against another, federal sites are often competing against other communications channels, such as call centers and local offices, said Larry Freed, president and chief executive officer of ForeSee Results. Since the Internet can be a much more efficient method of interaction for agencies, it is important to make it one that citizens want to use, he said.

Multiple channels will stick around for some time, however, and agencies also need to work on improving user satisfaction when citizens switch from one channel to another, said Dave McClure, vice president of e-government at the Council for Excellence in Government.

For example, all too often a user can start out on the Internet but then have to restate all of their information if they try to move the transaction to an office.

Overall, the government average is several points lower than the national commercial average, but it is difficult to perform a direct comparison between the two sectors, McClure said.

Commercial sites are often aimed at a specific audience, while the majority of federal sites are for users that are looking for many different types of information and services. This makes it much more difficult to provide a single site that will satisfy all of them, he said.

In the survey, one site in particular — the National Women's Health Information Center site at the Department of Health and Human Services — scored higher than any commercial site except Amazon.com. The center received a score of 83 and Amazon.com received a score of 88.

Several agency sites scored in the 50s, which is not a surprise when a sector is still evolving in its understanding of user habits and needs, Freed said. Once common practices are established, the range of scores tends to tighten, he said.

One problem with many federal sites is that the front end may be very user friendly, but once visitors make it past the first few layers, the information and services are still stovepiped, depending on what portion of the agency is providing the content, he pointed out.

But a compelling indication that satisfaction should increase across the board is that more agencies are turning to user-performance evaluations as their top measures of success, Freed said.

ForeSee Results plans to look at online user satisfaction every quarter, adding more sites every time.

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E-government top 10

The E-Government Satisfaction Index study, led by the University of Michigan Business School and Foresee Results Inc., measured citizen satisfaction with 22 federal Web sites. The survey determined satisfaction scores from users.

1. The Department of Health and Human Services' Office on Women's Health National Women's Health Information Center Web site (83)

2. NASA's main Web site (79)

3. NASA's Education Program and NASA Spacelink (78)

4. The Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service (76)

5. FirstGov (74)

6. The State Department's career site (73)

6. HHS' Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (73)i

8. State's main site (72)

9. Office of Personnel Management's job search site (71)

10. USDA's Forest Service (69)

10. State's Bureau of International Information Programs (69)

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