Federal and state portals improving

Interactive electronic services and privacy and security statements are becoming more prevalent on U.S. federal and state government Web sites, according to a new study that Brown University conducted.

“We found a lot of progress this year,” said Darrell West, a public policy and political science professor at the university who conducted the study, which looked at a wide range of e-government services. “Governments are putting more and more services online with particular attention to privacy and security.”

In response to the public’s growing fears about hackers and online data theft, governments are putting in safeguards and publicizing their policies and actions, he said.

The report found that 69 percent of sites have some form of visible privacy policy, up from 63 percent in 2004, while 54 percent have a security policy, up from 46 percent last year.

Overall, the report – the sixth annual one published by West – suggests that considerable progress has been made since 2000.

For example, states didn’t have a central portal as a gateway to all their sites and now every one does, he said. However, there’s a wide variation among states in making their portals more useful. Utah and Maine are ahead of the pack, but Wyoming is in last place, the study found.

“It’s a question of money and political will,” West said. “Some states have not invested technology and you can see the problems on their Web sites. They don’t incorporate the interactive features of technology into their Web sites. Other states have the money to invest.”

He also said the governor or members of the legislatures generally make it a priority and find the resources to make it happen. In addition to Utah and Maine, which ranked one and two in the study, respectively, other top state Web sites were produced by New Jersey, North Carolina and Michigan.

Federal agency Web sites fare much better than state government sites because in part it’s an economy of scale, he said. The White House’s site, for example, has increased usage of interactive technology, such as subscribers registering for automated e-mail messages based on particular areas of interest. Users can indicate preferences for topics such as terrorism or health care and then receive updates as the White House releases new information.

However, federal sites have a number of quality control problems, such as broken links, missing titles, missing keywords, warnings and redirects to new pages, according to the report.

The top federal Web sites included the White House; the State, Treasury and Agriculture departments; and the Environmental Protection Agency.

West and his team of researchers conducted a detailed analysis of 1,620 state and federal government Web sites. Among the report’s findings:

• 73 percent of state and federal sites have services that are “fully executable” online, up from 56 percent last year.

• 44 percent of federal sites and 40 percent of state sites meet the World Wide Web Consortium’s disability guidelines, up slightly from last year.

• 1 percent of sites are accessible via personal digital assistants, pagers or mobile phones, the same as last year.

• 18 percent offer some foreign language translation, down from 21 percent.

• 67 percent are written at the 12th-grade reading level

West and his team also conducted the fifth annual global e-government study, which analyzed 1,797 government Web sites in 198 nations.

In that report, he said the United States, which “used to be the undisputed leader in e-government," trails Taiwan and Singapore in part because there hasn’t been much of a major financial investment in e-government.

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