New Challenges in Store for Customer-Facing Gov Websites

Just how much information about the U.S. government is available on the Internet is anybody’s guess. But U.S. citizens should be comfortable knowing that if they are persistent enough, they should find much of what they are looking for regarding the federal government online — whether it’s tax information from the Internal Revenue Service, benefits data from the Social Security Administration, or some obscure economic table.

The U.S. government’s Web presence involved 1,489 domains and 11,013 separate websites when a report was issued recently in response to a White House initiative designed to reduce waste in government.

In June 2011, the Obama Administration specifically targeted duplication and waste, calling for a significant reduction in federal websites and imposing a temporary freeze on the creation of executive branch sites. A report was produced by the .Gov Reform Task Force, a panel of federal information technology managers from the White House, cabinet departments and various agencies.

“The real goal of the report was to identify … opportunities for improvement and efficiencies, partly in response to the larger dot-gov reform program to cut waste, and to comply with the administration’s initiative on improving customer service,” Sheila Campbell, director of the Center for Excellence in Digital Government at the General Services Administration, told CRM Buyer. GSA assisted in compiling the report.

Operations Vary Across Agencies

One of the report’s key findings was the wide discrepancy in the number of domains and websites within the 56 agencies covered in the study. Five of the major federal agencies used more than 100 domains each, but nearly 20 percent of all domains were inactive. Some agencies operated only a few websites, while others employed hundreds.

There were also disparities regarding other aspects of federal Web operations. Of the 24 major agencies included in a section of the report dealing with Web management, only 35 percent said they had standardized Web policies and procedures across their units. These agencies employed a total of 150 different systems for creating and publishing Web content, and they used about 250 Web hosting providers, with an average of 10 providers per agency.

In addition, most of the agencies reported that there was not a common Web design for the entire department or agency, and that many resource decisions occurred at the program or bureau level, rather than through a strategic review of resources across the agency to leverage economies of scale.

Fewer than half of the agencies reported having an organization-wide Web strategy, and most Web operations were highly decentralized within agencies. Most agencies said they conducted regular reviews to ensure accuracy and accessibility of Web content, and all reported some type of engagement with customers to incorporate direct user feedback into website improvements.

Customer Impact Critical

While the report does not contain any specific conclusions or recommendations, the sheer volume of sites and the lack of centralized management in most agencies involving various aspects of Web operation — from content development to performance evaluation or use of hosting providers — suggest that inconsistencies, duplication and inefficiencies remain a significant challenge in providing productive Web operations. Many agencies said they would welcome guidance to improve their Web performance.

“What the results show, I think, is that we need to step back and consider the impact of all these sites and information. When citizens find similar information on several sites or duplication of information, it can lead to confusion about the amount or accuracy of the information,” David McClure, associate administrator of the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies at GSA, told CRM Buyer.

“The power of government information can be diminished because we are not effectively managing it properly. We can use the report to focus on the quality of the online experience for citizens,” he said.

Federal Web managers have actually been proactive in addressing these issues for the past few years, and a GSA-operated site called “” was initiated last year to provide guidance, management resources, and best practices information. However, the recent report provides a comprehensive reference regarding the challenges that remain in improving the federal online presence.

Private Sector Opportunities

Resources from both the public and private sector can be brought to bear on making improvements, McClure noted.

“We are pulling several levers here, and one is the internal factor. There also are many commercial providers already active with the agencies, but we would like to see that expertise diffused throughout government by such vehicles as the and best practices material so we can take advantage of the commercial experience, so there is definitely a role for the commercial sector,” he said.

“Another source, as we go forward, is the great potential for utilizing open source solutions and Web operations approaches that can be shared,” said Campbell. “With tighter budgets, we should take advantage of those resources.”

GSA has been active in providing federal IT managers contracting templates for obtaining expertise from the private sector, but McClure said there was a limit to creating Blanket Purchase Arrangements that might address the online performance issue.

“I don’t know if we can roll out BPAs for every application. We have already provided a contracting vehicle through our cloud initiative to cover some of these situations,” he said. “But we are still interested in obtaining help and ideas from the private sector.”

Federal Web managers now use a mix of internal and private sector hosting resources and will likely continue that pattern, Campbell noted.

For private sector providers offering Web hosting, design and content services, the report represents both a milestone and a baseline for future opportunities to assist federal agencies. A key element in the report is that agencies were committed to pursuing continuing programs to improve online customer services.

An overall federal Web strategy is due for adoption in the first half of 2012 that will indicate future goals and requirements.

While the report deals mainly with operation and presentation issues, there is a another aspect of federal online activities that also needs attention, according to John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, a group advocating transparency in government.

“We are not as concerned with the sheer number of domains or sites as the Obama Administration is in its cutting-waste program, he told CRM Buyer.

“Multiple sites may be appropriate in some circumstances. The report can be useful in terms of putting a focus on better management, but we value content and accessibility in addition to efficiency,” Wonderlich explained.

“Federal Web managers should be just as concerned about the huge amounts of federal agency information that is not available online,” he pointed out. “In that sense, the points raised in the report related to a centralized approach to online operations should include the access issue, along with the other Web-operation components.”

John K. Higgins is a career business writer, with broad experience for a major publisher in a wide range of topics including energy, finance, environment and government policy. In his current freelance role, he reports mainly on government information technology issues for ECT News Network.

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