E-Gov: Continued Vote of No Confidence
Citizen satisfaction with online government Web sites declined by nearly half a percentage point from the last quarter to an aggregate score of 73.3 (on a 100-point scale), according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), which measures satisfaction with the quality of goods and services across multiple industries in the U.S.
Although this quarter's score is the lowest since the second quarter of 2005, average e-government satisfaction has really been plateauing, fluctuating between 73.3 and 74.0 for the past nine quarters, even as the breadth of the survey has increased. (This quarter, the number of sites measured by the ACSI increased by almost 10 percent, to 91.)
And the 73.3 figure is merely an average: In fact, more than one-fifth of government sites received scores of 80 or higher in the most recent survey. (The Social Security Administration's site was the leader with a score of 88.). Part of the reason for the plateau may be the divergent progress made by federal sites of the sites over the last three months: Compared to last quarter, 37 percent of federal Web sites included in the study have higher scores; 37 percent declined; and 27 percent stayed the same.
With roughly two-thirds of government Web sites failing to improve or falling further behind, it's fair to say that the sector is struggling, compared to Web sites in the private sector, such as Best Buy or Target. "At the end of the day, there's a very simple definition of satisfaction: It's a combination of what you get and what you expect," says Larry Freed, president and chief executive officer of ForeSee Results, the Michigan-based research firm that deploys the ACSI. As a result, expectation
poses the biggest challenge for federal sites -- they're being held to a standard set not just by their peers at the government level, but by all Internet sites.
In fact, the same basic rule for private-sector Web sites applies to government sites: Listen to the citizens/customers and cater to their needs and preferences. Unfortunately, e-government is at a disadvantage when it comes to tackling that basic goal, suffering from significant limitations -- including restricted finances, technology constraints (e-government cannot track cookies which makes personal tracking difficult), and bureaucratic challenges -- not found in the private sector. Because of such obstacles, e-gov change tends to come much more slowly than it does in the rest of the online industry, where new technology, new features, and new content come readily. "Government sites often have a very clear mandate of what they're supposed to provide and who they're provided to," Freed says. "So they're a little less flexible in meeting the dynamic needs of the citizen."
There was also a great deal of disparity between individual sectors of e-government. The E-commerce/Transactions segment plummeted nearly 3 percent quarter-over-quarter, from a score of 76.8 to 74.6 -- primarily due to the addition of some new sites with below-average scores, according to the ForeSee report -- while the Career/Recruitment segment ticked up nearly a full percent, rising from 76.5 to 77.2.
Regardless, e-government as a whole is no different than other online providers: The Web site remains the most convenient and cheapest way of communicating to online visitors. Consequently, if Web surfers aren't getting the information they want from sites, their growing dissatisfaction will drive them to "other, more expensive channels to get that information, be it within government or outside of government," Freed says. So by increasing Web site accessibility, the government will benefit by reducing the potential cost of citizens turning to other channels, such as contact centers, for answers.
Nevertheless, the government does
have an advantage over commercial entities in that the information it provides is, for the most part, trusted and legitimate. "If you have a really bad experience at IRS.gov, you're not going to pay taxes in Canada," Freed jokes. "But you are going to have a little less trust or confidence in the agency." Because the Web site has literally become the face of an organization, poor service undoubtedly generates overall negative attitudes toward the government.
One area that can dramatically improve Web sites, the report states, is better search capabilities. (The sites themselves seem to already comprehend the growing importance: 79 percent of them cited search as their first- or second-most important priority.) The report also notes e-gov's need for better navigation and overall functionality.
Still, Freed commends the efforts of those who participated in the ACSI as he believes, "the first step to improvement is measurement." He adds, "I've got great respect for those that are fighting the fight, if you will, and stepping up and saying, 'I want to know how good or bad I am so I can improve.' "
There's evidence to suggest that Freed is correct. Visitors to "top-performing" sites (those with scores of 80 or higher) are 19 percent more likely to recommend the site than are visitors to the bottom-scoring group (with scores of 70 or below), and visitors to those top performers are 13% more likely to return to the site and 13% more likely to choose the site as a primary resource than are visitors to the underperformers.
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