Published May 05, 2009
President Obama won high marks from friend and foe alike for his campaign's mastery of the Internet during the 2008 campaign, and now that he is in the White House he has pledged to use the Web to make the federal government more transparent to the general public.
But the federal government's Web sites -- with the notable exception of the White House site -- are in large part outdated and difficult to navigate, leaving the administration looking ahead to a very bumpy ride along the information superhighway as it tries to bring the sites up to speed.
In a recent study conducted by the online research company ForeSee Results, in collaboration with the University of Michigan, satisfaction among those who frequent government Web sites had dropped 0.7 percent over the first three months of this year.
ForeSee CEO Larry Freed attributes a significant part of the drop-off to the public's expectations from "the most tech-savvy president ever elected."
But the study also points to the gap between the private and public sectors, with e-commerce sites on average scoring 9 percent higher on customer satisfaction surveys.
"Government Web sites have gotten better, but the private sector sites have gotten better at a much faster pace," said Darrell West of the Brookings Institution, a Washington D.C. think tank. "The gap is still substantial."
"There's no common navigational scheme. Every site looks different, so you always have to spend a minute or two seeing how that particular site works," West said. "And most of them don't have good search engines, so it's really hard to find what you need."
When home construction in Florida started to fall off, Tim Corder, a project developer with Current Builders in South Florida, began working on getting his company federal stimulus contracts to build military housing.
He logged on to FedBizOpps, the federal jobs board, but every time he clicked on a link he was asked for another code or piece of information that he would have to research before proceeding.
"If you're just sitting in your office trying to figure it out, you're never going to get it done," he said. "It's an exercise in futility.
"The best thing you can do is go to one of these industry forums. You walk around, talk to people and find out what other people are doing."
Not surprisingly, getting information about grant money that is available under the recovery plan was one of the sore spots in the e-gov survey. The lowest ranked site for customer satisfaction was grants.gov, the public's portal into what grant money is available under the stimulus program.
"There are a lot of people who are hearing about stimulus and they want to go and find out about it and that's easier said than done," Freed said. "These tend to be pretty sophisticated people who want something quick and easy."
With varying degrees of Internet savvy to account for, it's hard to design a one-size-fits-all navigation system -- though the government has been trying.
One site that appears to be clicking with the public is the White House Web site, whitehouse.gov, which has received the thumbs-up from online advocacy groups for providing forums where the public can ask questions and read blogs posted by key members of the administration.
But its counterparts in other federal agencies have so far been left behind.
"In government everyone does their own [Web site], which is a nearly insurmountable problem," Freed said. "I doubt they'll be able to fix that in the short term,"
The problem, he said, has been made worse by the change in administration, which he said tended to leave many federal programs "waiting to see the budget and see if they're going to stick around or go away."
The federal government's online presence lags behind for now, but Freed expects it to improve significantly in the years ahead. He pointed to the appointment of former Washington D.C. IT head Vivek Kundra to be federal chief information officer as a sign the White House is committed to the entire government's online presentation.
"There's a lot of good movement and good people being put in and that bodes well for e-gov," he said. "There's a lag between the administration talking about things, and things actually happening. And a lot of people don't realize that."