Time for an Update? The State of U.S. Government Websites

Time for an Update? The State of U.S. Government Websites

Posted by John Landwehr, VP and Public Sector CTO

Did you know there are more than 6,000 federal government websites, housed on over 400 domains?  And many of these 6,000 aren’t fast, mobile friendly, secure or accessible.  Federal websites need an upgrade.

In 2010, with its eye on delivering better services and a more digitally responsive government GSA created the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technology (OCSIT).  OCSIT’s stated goal was to “leverage GSA’s leadership role in identifying and applying new technologies to effective government operations and service delivery while continuing to advance GSA’s responsibilities in serving the American people through open and transparent government initiatives.”  Today, nearly seven years after the formation of OCSIT agencies continue to struggle to provide a more responsive government and find smarter ways to leverage the new and innovative technologies to better deliver services to citizens.

In order to drive operational efficiency and improve the delivery of service to citizens we must create a more responsive 21st Century digital government.  Website modernization plays a major role in this effort because as the front end of a digital government agency websites are often the starting point for a citizen’s interaction with the federal government.  Today less than 60 percent of federal websites render on a mobile device, despite the fact that mobile access is becoming the primary way nearly 100 million people get online.  Three in five U.S. citizens use smartphones to access the internet and over 30 percent can only access the internet via a smartphone.  Herein lies the problem:  If a near-majority of citizens prefer a mobile device to get their information, and government websites aren’t rendering effectively on mobile devices, the government is missing a huge opportunity to serve citizens effectively and citizens’ access to government services is severely limited.

On March 8th, the Information Technology Innovation Foundation (ITIF) released a new report entitled Benchmarking U.S. Federal Government Websites, which assessed 297 of the most popular federal websites using publicly available tools and data.  The report provides a detailed analysis of how U.S. federal websites are performing overall in terms of page load speed, mobile friendliness, security, and accessibility. Here’s what they found:

  • While 78 percent of websites passed the desktop page load speed test, most websites failed the mobile page load speed test. Only 36 percent of the reviewed websites were optimized for a fast mobile experience. Page load speed is the industry standard.
  • Just 59 percent of the reviewed websites were mobile friendly
  • Federal websites generally scored high on security, particularly around Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS)—a common standard for encrypted Internet communications and Domain Name System Security (DNSSEC)
  • Only 58 percent of the reviewed websites were accessible for users with disabilities.

The federal government must commit to building a more responsive digital government, leveraging commercial technology to bring its digital footprint out of the Stone Age. To get there, as the ITIF report shows, we must make substantial improvements. So where do we go from here?

The ITIF report makes five key recommendations to enhance federal websites.  They are:

  • Launch a website modernization “sprint” to address known security and accessibility issues. This approach has proven effective in the federal government and was most recently used in 2015 to address cybersecurity vulnerabilities following the OPM breach.
  • Require federal websites to meet basic page load speed requirements, built on commercial best practices.
  • Improve website analytics and ensure that all agencies participate in the Digital Analytics Program (DAP), a website analytics program hosted by GSA in which only 52% of domains currently participate.
  • Launch a website modernization and consolidation initiative to reduce the number of federal websites, while ensuring agencies leverage modern commercial platforms.
  • Establish an IT modernization fund, similar to what has been proposed as the Modernizing Government Technology Act, to ensure that funding is readily available for website modernization.

The private sector is far ahead of the federal government when it comes to websites – faster, more mobile friendly and more secure.  The federal government has a long to go to catch up but by following the recommendations described above and leveraging private sector best practices and the latest commercial technologies, they can upgrade quickly and begin providing citizens with a state-of-the-art 21st Century digital experience as they interact online with the federal government.

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