The federal government maintains a large footprint of “dot-gov” websites numbering in the thousands, but visitors often encounter stumbling blocks when they try to find the right information or request the right service. Government websites might not load properly on all internet browsers, or on smartphones and tablets. They may also raise challenges for users with physical disabilities.
Amid all the critical issues facing agency chief information officers and their staffs, improving the federal website experience for users has gotten more traction, but according to a recent report by the non-profit Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, it’s a process that still has a long way to go.
For its latest study, ITIF took a deep dive on nearly 500 “.gov” websites, and scored them based on page load speed, accessibility for disabled users, mobile-friendliness and cybersecurity. Of the sites tested, ITIF found that 91 percent received a failing grade on at least one of those criteria.
“We saw poor performance across all sites, both the most popular ones and the maybe less-trafficked ones,” Daniel Castro, the foundation’s vice president, and the report’s lead author, told Federal News Radio.
However, that sample size only scratches the surface of what’s out there. The General Services Administration and the Office of Management and Budget in 2011 estimated that there were 2,000 federal websites, but ITIF says that number has ballooned to more than 4,500 sites.
“We think this is really the tip of the iceberg, and there’s lots of less popular sites that have a lot of problems that we need to figure out how we’re going to address,” Castro said.
Compared to ITIF’s first federal website scorecard, which it released last year, a number of agencies have seen their scores improve. One notable case is the Internal Revenue Service.
“It had a lot of problems, and it did even the last time that we tested it, but in this most recent report, their core shot up and they’re one of the most improved sites,” Castro said. “Anyone who goes to it and looks at tax information can see they really put a lot of work into refreshing the information, how it’s displayed. It’s a whole new website.”
In some areas, like cybersecurity and accessibility, federal websites have the most guidance through laws passed by Congress, but in other areas, like mobility compatibility, there’s more discretion. However, Castro said just because there are federal mandates, doesn’t mean that agencies aren’t always meeting them.
In terms of short-term fixes, ITIF recommends agencies implement a series of cyber sprints to address some of their site flaws, but the foundation has also called on President Donald Trump to nominate a new permanent federal CIO to help set the pace for some of these sprints. The last officeholder, Tony Scott, served under the Obama administration, and stepped down in January 2017. Acting Federal CIO Margie Graves currently holds that post.
“The fact that we don’t have a permanent federal CIO is holding back progress in a lot of these areas, whether it’s talking about getting more widespread testing assessment, directing [agency] CIOs on what they should be doing in this area or even prioritizing some of this work,” Castro said.
In terms of long-term fixes, ITIF wants Congress to pass the Connected Government Act, which would put mobile-friendly benchmarks in place for all new and reauthorized federal websites.
“One of the reasons that just isn’t done right now is that that requirement doesn’t exist on the same level that you have for accessibility or security,” Castro said.
Another solution is to uphold some of the best practices implemented by agencies with some of the top-scoring websites. Those departments, he said, don’t just follow the letter of the law when it comes to website standards — they follow “the spirit of the law,” by focusing on user experience.
One model to follow, Castro says, is the FBI’s website, which has undergone extensive work.
“You can tell they’ve tried to keep pace with what a modern website looks like aesthetically, but also how it performs. They’ve just clearly dedicated the resources to ensure their sites are performing on-par with what’s in the private sector,” he said. “If government wants to deliver a good online experience, they need to be delivering what people are familiar with.”