Students grade FirstGov

Before they left for their summer jobs, I asked the first-year students taking my public management class at Harvard University to visit the FirstGov Web portal and send me their reactions. Needless to say, this is the generation that lives on the Web, and they are an important constituency for government to attract and please in its various e-government efforts.

About 10 students got back to me, including one who had worked as a Web site designer before coming to the Kennedy School and another who had a "long conversation" with a friend who had worked in private Web consulting about the site. Basically, they gave FirstGov good reviews. In a burst of enthusiasm, one student wrote, "I especially love the shopping section! This site has a list of links to just about every government-operated gift shop in the country...and a list of all the government auction sites. This is better than e-Bay!"

They had a number of suggestions for improvement as well. The most common criticism, made by a majority of the students in my unscientific sample, was that the FirstGov home page was too dense and text-rich.

"The site is far too busy with text," one student wrote. "FirstGov [and all the other government sites it links to] do not contain enough graphics to space the text and offer variety."

Another student wrote, "The Web site is pretty dense. It can be overwhelming if you are not familiar with government."

My students liked the division of the site into citizen/business/government. One student, who herself plans to enter the nonprofit sector, wondered where a person should go for information relevant to nonprofit organizations, such as how to apply for a tax exemption. And another suggested that the e-newsletter people could sign up for be segmented into citizen/business/government editions.

The student who had talked with his friend the Web consultant said: "The search engine is not ideal. I tried searching 'Massachusetts income tax' on FirstGov and on Yahoo. They both gave me what I was looking for, but FirstGov had a lot of extraneous links, and I was less confident that it was taking me where I wanted to be. FirstGov might do better offering a taxonomy type approach to displaying its results."

One student wrote — and I don't even think he's a Republican — that "the welcome by President Bush, hidden on the upper right-hand corner, was actually a helpful introduction. It's a shame that it doesn't appear more prominently, perhaps even with a photo."

Finally, one student said that the name "FirstGov.gov" was confusing because "gov" is duplicated in both the Web site title and the domain name. Unsure of the site's correct address, he searched under "www.first.gov" and that address got him to the correct site. (How many of you knew that? Good job, General Services Administration!)

"They should be advertising the site's name in that way since it's easier," he suggested.

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard's Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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