Egovernment Sites Starting to Take Transparency Seriously

In his Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln expressed the hope that he envisioned for our government: "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom-and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." History, however, has repeatedly demonstrated a steady loss of faith in the U.S. federal government due to actual and alleged corruption, cover-ups, scandals, fiscal mismanagement, economic downfalls, fraud, abuse, waste, and more. As the citizenry grows accustomed to immediate access to global information via smartphones, social media apps, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, blogs, videos, and streaming media, it has been difficult for bureaucrats to assimilate. At least one company has been keeping tabs on the situation, though.

ForeSee Results, which is focused on customer satisfaction analytics, has taken a special interest in the federal sector's transparency goals. The company developed the E-Government Transparency Index in 2009 in response to government agencies' desire to be able to measure their progress. More recently, ForeSee released its 2010 year-end E-Government Transparency Index. The report, released on Feb. 22, 2011, confirms transparency is a key driver of online satisfaction and overall trust in government. The research also showed a slight improvement in egovernment transparency since 3Q 2010 and is up almost half a point to 76.2 on the study's 100-point scale.

Egovernment illustration chart

President Barack Obama issued the Open Government Directive at the end of 2009, requiring each agency to develop an open government plan and a website with its own unique road map. Four months later on April 7, 2010, the agencies revealed their plans and websites. Empowering the public to provide ideas, ratings, and feedback and expecting the government to respond in a timely manner could quickly expose their weaknesses. Some agencies carefully chose what information to initially share with the public. They wanted to be perceived as compliant without really facing some hard issues for fear of any implications that might expose project, program, budget, or resource inefficiencies.

ForeSee also produces a quarterly E-Government Satisfaction Index, which showed an overall rise in citizen satisfaction in 2010. By 4Q 2010, The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) E-Government Satisfaction Index showed some egovernment sites outperformed those in the private sector and far surpassed satisfaction with government overall. Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee Results, says, "Some federal sites will see huge returns from making small improvements to online transparency; others can maintain the status quo and focus on other things."

The E-Government Transparency Index uses the methodology of the ACSI to measure the impact of various website elements, including content, functionality, site performance, look and feel, navigation, search, and transparency on citizen satisfaction. The study is based on a survey of more than 320,000 U.S. citizens who visited federal websites over the course of 2010.

It should be noted that 200 government sites utilize ForeSee products. There's no additional cost to measure online transparency satisfaction. Although government participation in the E-Government Transparency Index increased by 35% in 2010, only 32 federal sites currently using ForeSee products were measured.

While the federal agencies seem to acknowledge the need for transparency, many of them fail to recognize that it is not the end goal. Instead, it is supposed to help create efficiency and effectiveness. Adoption of a sound measurement strategy for egovernment undertakings can help determine their success or failure by providing metrics to support whether they've achieved their goals and objectives. Seeking the help of professionals who are experienced in evaluating online user satisfaction can provide a long-term return on investment.

When asked about the agencies' main areas of improvements, Freed identified two main categories: customer satisfaction (the overall web experience, their expectations, and what they consider an ideal experience) and transparency (speed of information available, the ease of finding information, and the thoroughness of the information).

There were five egovernment sites that outperformed the rest (scored ≥ 82%): the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Espanol; the Department of Commerce National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration main website; the DHS U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services site; the Department of Defense Navy site; and the Health & Human Services National Human Genome Research Institute site. Freed found the best sites generally do a good job making information available in a timely manner. However, the results of the survey are really driven by the users' perceptions. What's most important is what is topical to them, and users want to know if it is available now. This makes for highly subjective website reviews.

Freed also acknowledged that it isn't easy to pinpoint why some agencies aren't doing as well as others. The type of information the agency is responsible for could be at the heart of the problem, or citizens may just feel the information found isn't answering their concerns. Of course, this can be subjective based on what users want to do on each site.

Without revealing which agencies have made improvements based on feedback received, or what types of improvements they have made, Freed says the organizations are making changes in response to the surveys-although the pace is slower than the private sector. Some organizations are actively improving their sites' user experience, but each focuses on different areas, based on data and analysis from ForeSee, customers, and the internal objectives of the individual programs. For half of the sites being measured, transparency is the top priority, while 50% are working to improve user behaviors.

Web analytics and optimization experts such as Freed believe federal agencies need to take Obama's mandate for transparency, collaboration, and citizen engagement more seriously. "The Knight Open Government Survey 2011" revealed more than half of the 90 federal agencies have complied with a portion of Obama's Open Government Directive by actually making concrete changes in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) procedures. Yet almost 50% of the agencies still lag behind in responding to FOIA requests.

John Podesta-who served as White House Chief of Staff to former President Bill Clinton as well as on Obama's transition team-recently testified before a Senate Judiciary Committee that "disclosure should be the general rule" and "it should be done through the Internet." Podesta said that a searchable FOIA database would make access easier for the general public and be beneficial for the government by reducing the number of requests that need to be filed with an agency.

At a minimum, Congress, the public, and transparency advocates should continue to put pressure on noncompliant federal agencies. Dumping data on government sites isn't the answer. By developing measurement strategies based on user behaviors in conjunction with meaningful website functionality and navigational improvements, it would do more to generate trust in the citizens they serve.