State portals miss usability mark

"State Web Portals: Delivering and Financing E-Service"

Although state governments are moving quickly to provide better information

and customer service on their Web portals, many sites still fall short of

being accessible, customizable or usable to constituents, according to a

national study.

The study, "State Web Portals: Delivering and Financing E-Service,"

is a snapshot of government sites during spring 2001, so they may have advanced

since then, cautioned Rick Webb, managing director of PwC Consulting, a

division of PricewaterhouseCoopers, which funded the study. The report,

conducted by three Indiana University scholars, is intended to help states

enhance their e-services to citizens, he said.

The study used a 131-point questionnaire, and the results ranked sites

on four factors:

* Openness — The extent to which governments provide comprehensive

information and services on their sites.

* Customization — The ability of users to personalize the information

to their needs and wants.

* Usability — How accessible the information is to all users and how

easy the portal is to navigate.

* Transparency — How much a user trusts the content. For example, this

could mean posting security and privacy policies, information on agency

contacts and feedback procedures, and offering electronic receipts after

a user performs an online transaction.

The portals of California, North Dakota, Maine, North Carolina and Pennsylvania

ranked highest based on those four factors. At the other end of the spectrum,

the study ranked Tennessee, Nevada, West Virginia, South Dakota and New

Jersey the lowest.

Webb, a former chief information officer with North Carolina, said he

was particularly surprised that only seven portals offered some degree of

customization. He said that because states must provide information and

services to a diverse audience, content personalization is important for

users.

Many state sites also lagged on accessibility issues — including help

features, multilingual capabilities, information sent to personal digital

assistants, and serving users with disabilities.

Thirty-four states conformed to Web content accessibility guidelines

developed by the World Wide Web Consortium ({http://www.w3.org} www.w3.org),

but many of those states have minor problems relating to the use of graphics,

the study said. And 16 states have portals that do not provide "reasonable

access to a significant number of disabled users," it reported.

Only four states had options to view content in a language other than

English, and a varying degree of states offer help and training to new visitors.

The study said 16 states don't offer any form of help.

"Portal development is both a sprint race and a journey. It's a sprint

race because states are moving aggressively to provide better customer service

and organizational content for citizens. But a long-term large investment

is required to make the functionality necessary," said Webb, who added that

states have come a long way and that portals are continually maturing.

Another finding of the study is that portals do little to instill constituent

trust. For example, only eight states provide both a security and privacy

statement. And most states do not consistently provide receipts or other

acknowledgments of completed transactions.

The report outlined several recommendations, including emphasizing customer

service; organizing services by event rather than department; allowing for

customization; recognizing the diversity of visitors; and including features

to enhance the legitimacy of the portal.

Webb said portals should be treated like long-term capital assets, accounted

for in a capital budget and reported on distinctively in budgetary and financial

reports. The study also said user charges are appropriate but shouldn't

be relied on to finance portal costs.

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