Satisfaction with federal Web sites rises slightly

Sites that simplify transactions with the government or provide health information rate well.

Public satisfaction with government Web sites rose for the first time in a year during the second quarter of 2008, according to a report published Tuesday.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Federal Web sites received an aggregate second quarter score of 72.9 on the American Customer Satisfaction Index, the report stated. This represented a 0.7 percent bump from the first quarter mark of 72.4, which was the lowest score in three years.

"It's a little too early to call [the improved score] a trend," said Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee Results, which published the report. "More and more agency sites are focused on the customer. The drive up is based on individual sites more than anything else."

A record number of federal sites - 23 - received individual ratings of 80 or better for the second quarter, raising the aggregate mark. Forty-five percent of the 108 federal sites measured saw their scores increase compared with the first quarter, while 30 percent experienced a decrease and 24 percent had no change.

Freed said e-commerce and transaction sites continue to lead the way on the satisfaction index. Sites that simplify a process that was difficult or time-consuming tend to fare well. "Citizens are starting to expect to be able to complete transactions online, such as filing their taxes or applying for benefits," Freed said.

Health care sites also continue to achieve high ratings, in part because the government can take advantage of its credibility. "Customers can google a tremendous amount of information about a medicine, symptom or disease, but what are they to believe?" Freed said. "[Federal] sites provide great information."

At the opposite end of the spectrum are main federal agency sites and portals, which Freed said have the toughest time because of the many functions they must serve. Citizens' expectations of federal sites often are formed by visiting commercial sites, which do not face the same sort of technological or budgetary constraints. "Government sites have struggled to keep up with the new technology from the private sector during the last year and a half," Freed said, citing videos and user-generated content as two areas where the government is trying to stay current.

The poorest performing sites often are not updated regularly, another symptom of the public's rising expectations for federal Web sites. Freed said the cyclical nature of the scores for some of the sites is natural as they adapt to meeting the needs of their customers.

"You can't fix something until it's broken," Freed said. "[Federal Web sites] are not selling anything and the number of people coming to the site doesn't really measure success. It really comes down to satisfaction. For a lot of these sites, it's about starting the process and seeing what they're missing, then getting management onboard and getting the funding they need."