Feds doing elementary e-gov

The State of Federal Web Sites report

A survey of federal government Web sites revealed that most agencies still offer little more than the most basic elements of electronic government. More complex features, such as interactive forms and e-commerce applications, remain relatively scarce.

The San Francisco State University survey showed that 87 percent of federal Web sites still fail to meet accessibility standards despite being required by law for the past 14 months.

Professor Genie Stowers studied 148 federal agency Web sites and discovered that most offered basic information and documents, and elementary services such as employment information. But only about half offered such useful items as downloadable forms, and even fewer still offered interactive forms and interactive databases. Only 12.8 percent offered e-commerce applications and only 8.8 percent offered direct links to e-government services.

Stowers, a professor of public administration and associate dean at San Francisco State, studied federal Web sites between January and April for the PricewaterhouseCoopers Endowment for the Business of Government.

A key finding, she said, is that many government Web sites do a poor job of making information and services readily available to those who are least familiar with government agencies.

Too many federal Web sites are "designed so that only those who really understand government and how it works can successfully navigate them," she said in a 44-page report, "The State of Federal Web Sites: The Pursuit of Excellence," released Aug. 21.

The prevalence of poor design creates a whole new digital divide, she said. To bridge it, agencies must design Web sites that are easier to use.

"Federal Web sites have enormous audiences and the potential for significant impact," Stowers said. "It is crucial that federal Web managers develop and implement sites that are user-friendly as well as stocked with useful information."

In general, federal Web sites should offer more features to help users, Stowers said. Although most sites include a search function, and about half offer a site map, only a third offered answers to frequently asked questions, only 31 percent asked for user feedback, 27 percent offered a "help" feature and 25 percent offered a site index, Stowers discovered.

Stowers did single out a few federal Web as examples of excellence. Her top five are:

* The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (www.uspto.gov), which she said "provides a vast amount of useful content and a comprehensive set of aids to the user." The site offers several means of finding information and offers help with key subjects such as how to apply for a patent. It offers access to a number of searchable databases of patents and trademarks. However, it flunks the accessibility test, meaning it is not fully usable by people with disabilities such as blindness.

* The Department of Health and Human Services (www.hhs.gov) wins praise for providing "enormous amounts of information and types of services for many types of users." For example, the department offers fact sheets on subjects ranging from aging and mad cow disease to genetic testing and teen pregnancy, Stowers said.

* The Education Department site (www.ed.gov) ranked high for the plethora of services it offers — from applications for financial aid to information arranged for various audiences. But the site lost points for opening with a "splash page in a somewhat confusing format."

* The Treasury Department (www.treas.gov) scored points for e-commerce services such as savings bond and other investment sales, and souvenirs such as "$1 Texas Lone Star notes" and "$1 Year of the Horse notes." The site scores for "all kinds of forms" that can be downloaded and automatic e-mail notification of law enforcement actions, interest rate statistics and policy papers.

* The Navy Web site (www.navy.mil) "is a gateway to considerable content" and offers valuable navigation tools, Stowers said. A part of the site devoted to information on housing, legal assistance pay and benefits is "very useful for military personnel and their families," she said.

In addition to the top five, Stowers also cited the federal Web portal, FirstGov for its "thoughtful and effective design and content." The portal is intended to serve as a guide to government information and services.

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