Report: Busiest federal websites have big problems

Of the 297 most visited federal websites, more than 90 percent fall short of "basic standards" for security, speed, accessibility or ease of mobile access.

Shutterstock image (Dencg) : digital government concept.
 

Just eight percent of the most-visited federal domains meet "basic standards" for website performance, according to a new think tank study.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation reviewed and tested 297 of the most popular government domains on four criteria: security, speed, accessibility for users with disabilities and ease of mobile access.

"Despite years of progress in digital government, a striking number of federal websites do not even meet many of the U.S. government's own requirements, let alone private-sector best practices," said Alan McQuinn, ITIF research analyst and the report's lead author. He added that federal sites have "a long way to go."

The three highest-scoring domains overall were healthdata.gov, healthfinder.gov and consumerfinance.gov. Of note, the Trump administration's whitehouse.gov site scored higher overall than Obama's.

The security category signaled a relative high point for federal domains. In fact, federal government websites generally "did better on the security tests than the top 20 non-government sector websites," the report authors found. Yet many sites, especially non-executive branch ones, still possess security flaws.

About one-third of government sites failed HTTPS security requirements, and 14 percent lacked HTTPS entirely. Websites for the Department of Defense, the International Trade Administration and the U.S. Courts fell in the latter category.

About 10 percent of sites failed the Domain Name System Security tests, including House.gov, Speaker.gov and the U.S. Forest Service site.

In terms of website loading speed, which was measured by Google's page insight tool, 78 percent of federal domains passed the speed test for desktops. That figure plummeted to 36 percent for mobile devices.

Websites for the General Services Administration, the National Cancer Institute and the Federal Trade Commission's IdentityTheft.gov were among the domains that failed both speed tests.

Additionally, 42 percent of sites were not up to snuff in terms of accessibility for users with disabilities. Employing high-contrast text, providing alternative text for images and labeling buttons to enable screen readers are examples listed by the report of ways to be "accessible."

Domains that failed the accessibility tests included sites for the Internal Revenue Service and the International Trade Administration.

Lastly, 41 percent of sites were deemed not to be mobile-friendly. Disqualifiers for mobile friendliness included not employing metatags for mobile viewing, illegible font sizes and tabs and links being too small. Sites that failed the mobile-friendly test included those for the National Weather Service, the Department of the Treasury and the International Trade Administration.

The authors urged the White House to launch website modernization "sprints" to correct security and accessibility shortcomings; to mandate that agencies -- with help from the federal CIO and the Office of Management and Budget -- develop guidelines to improve page loading speed; and to require federal agencies to develop programs to track and share detailed website analytics.

They also recommend that OMB launch a website consolidation push, and that the White House work with Congress to establish a fund for agency IT projects, such as the one proposed by Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas).

The authors also recommend Congress to push nonexecutive federal agencies to improve their sites to meet federal standards and best practices.

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