Are government Web sites in danger?

In an effort to cut costs, the United Kingdom is cracking down on expensive government-funded Web sites, promising to close the majority of them. Could the United States do the same?

Government agencies have spent years building Web sites, improving them and striving to put as many services and applications online as possible. Interactive sites with databases of information, a full complement of services and portals to other government sites have become the norm.

But could the other shoe be dropping on Gov 2.0?

The United Kingdom's Cabinet Office has announced a crackdown on U.K. government Web sites, promising to shut down as many as 75 percent of them. Why? They’re “unnecessary and expensive,” according to the Cabinet Office’s June 24 statement.

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude has ordered a review of the U.K.’s 820 government-funded sites, examining their costs, how much they are used and whether they could share resources with other sites. In addition to shutting down up to three-quarters of them, the government wants the remaining sites to cut costs by as much as 50 percent and consolidate their infrastructures.

The costs of running a Web site can add up. A report by the U.K.’s Central Office for Information (COI) found that, across its government, $140 million has been spent on building and running just 46 Web sites, and nearly $48 million was spent on staff costs for those sites in 2009-10.

The report also surveyed usage and came up with the most expensive sites on a per-visit basis. The U.K. Trade and Investment site, which offers help to businesses looking to export their goods, was the most expensive, clocking in at a whopping $17.56 per visit. Business Link, which offers help for businesses, was next at $3.20. That compares with other sites, which supply simpler services such as access to legislation, that cost pennies per visit. (U.K. Trade and Investment called the report misleading, saying it applied to only 20 percent of its site’s transactions and that the system has since been made more efficient).

The report also found that non-government sites that perform government operations, known as Quangos, were competing with official government sites, and the Department for Energy and Climate Change and the Energy Saving Trust bid against each other for Google search terms, which increased their costs.

The U.K. had also announced plans in 2006 to close down government sites, but didn’t follow up. Whether this attempt will get results is uncertain.

The U.S. federal government in 2007 had launched the Trusted Internet Connections program to reduce the number of connection between the Internet and federal agencies, but cutting back on the number of Web sites wasn’t part of that plan. If the U.K. gets results – trimming costs and eliminating duplicative services – one wonders if the same approach might find its way across the pond.

Of course, not everyone agrees with the U.K. government’s approach. Tessa Jowell, the country’s former culture secretary, warned of a "false economy," according to the Guardian. "Putting services online is not only more efficient, but often it is cheaper as well," she said. "The measures announced today ... may end up costing the government more money than it is looking to save.”

"In the last two years, the Labour government already reviewed 1,795 websites, of which more than 1,000 have already been closed."

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