Survey: Agency Web sites make progress, still have far to go

Only 12.8 percent of federal Web sites include e-commerce applications, and only 8.8 percent offer direct links to e-government services, according to a survey of 148 federal Web sites conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers Endowment for the Business of Government, Arlington, Va.

Less than 15 percent of the sites passed a test that determines if a Web site is accessible to people with disabilities, according to the survey report, released Aug. 21 by the endowment, which conducts research and forums on improving the effectiveness of government.

The study, conducted from January to April, evaluated Web sites maintained by Cabinet-level and independent agencies, as well as major federal legislative and judicial sites. Each site was judged for its online services, user help and navigation aids, accessibility and features such as calendars, maps, links to other sites and "top topic" listings.

Most of the surveyed sites provided services such as employment information, search functions and lists of agency publications, the report said.

To accelerate the use of e-government, federal Web designers should be encouraged to create sites that are easier to use and accessible to citizens of all levels of computer literacy and physical ability, the report said.

"Citizen-centered government is one of the top priorities in President Bush's management agenda. While many federal agencies have taken positive steps to provide e-government services to their constituents, much remains to be done. This report offers useful insights," said Robert Reeve, PwC Consulting partner in charge of e-government solutions.

The study praised FirstGov, the recently redesigned portal managed by the General Services Administration, as an effective gateway into the full range of federal information and services. The site is organized by audience, presenting online services for citizens, businesses and governments. Its easy-to-use features include e-mail links to officials, a customer survey and e-mail newsletters on 23 topics.

Among agency Web sites, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Web site got the study's top marks because of its useful content and comprehensive user aides. The departments of Health and Human Services, Education, Treasury and the Navy were also rated highly for the same reasons.

The report recommends that federal Web designers put a high priority on accessibility and users' privacy and security, and design sites for content and services, not for glitz. The report also advises Web designers to design for outside users with little or no understanding of the agency or its structure, not for agency insiders.

"Federal Web sites have enormous audiences and the potential for significant impact. It is crucial that federal Web managers develop and implement sites that are user-friendly as well as stocked with useful information," said Genie Stowers, who conducted the study. Stowers is a professor and director of public administration at San Francisco State University.

The report, "The State of Federal Web Sites: The Pursuit of Excellence," can be found at www.endowment.pwcglobal.com/pdfs/StowersReport0802.pdf.

PwC Consulting, a New York management consulting and technology services firm with about 30,000 employees, will be bought by IBM Corp. of Armonk, N.Y. for $3.5 billion. PwC Consulting's parent company, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, announced the deal July 30. The acquisition is expected to be final at the end of September.

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