Survey: Fed Web sites still need work

The latest survey of federal government Web sites concludes that most sites remain hard to navigate and offer little more than the most basic elements of e-government.

While a few Web sites stand out — the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is rated best — most government sites lack "thoughtful information architecture" and offer little in the way of online services, said Genie Stowers, a professor at San Francisco State University who conducted the survey.

More complex e-government features, such as interactive forms and applications that enable financial transactions, remain relatively rare, said Stowers, who studied 148 federal Web sites. Her survey also showed that 87 percent of federal Web sites fail to meet accessibility standards for people with disabilities, despite a 14-month-old law requiring them to do so.

Stowers discovered that most agency Web sites offer basic information and documents and elementary services such as employment information. But only about half offered such useful items as downloadable forms; 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 of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences at San Francisco State, studied federal Web sites from January to April for the PricewaterhouseCoopers Endowment for the Business of Government.

Her findings sound familiar to Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University who conducts an annual survey of government Web sites.

"In general, I would agree that government agencies have mastered the basics of e-government but haven't really extended their Web sites to their greatest potential," West said. He plans to release his latest survey results in mid-September.

Government Web sites range from great to awful, said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "Some are fantastic. They're built in ways that encourage citizen participation, invite interaction and have made government agencies far more transparent to the public. Everything you would hope the Internet would do for agencies, they do," he said.

Such sites constitute 5 percent to 15 percent of all government sites, Rainie said. Another 40 percent of government sites are not as good, but improving. That means about half of all government sites are still "back in the Stone Age," he said.

Stowers said an important finding is that many 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 released Aug. 21.

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