Government breaks new ground in Web site satisfaction

Analysts say the achievement has more to do with long-term improvements to sites than the Obama administration's focus on technology.

Public satisfaction with federal Web sites has reached a record high, according to Tuesday's release of the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index for e-government.

Overall e-government satisfaction, which the university has measured quarterly since 2003, increased 2.2 percent between the second and third quarters of 2009, from 73.6 points to 75.2 points on a scale of 100. Researchers attributed the all-time high mostly to long-term investments in site maintenance and to measuring satisfaction. Efforts by the tech-savvy president were less of a factor, according to the study.

"While it would be nice to give President Obama all of the recognition, much of the credit goes to the men and women who have been working to create and improve federal Web sites for years," stated a report issued by ForeSee Results, a Web analytics firm. "Web sites that have been measuring satisfaction for five-plus years have the biggest improvements in their satisfaction scores, both long term and short term."

The third quarter composite score was 1.3 points, or 1.8 percent, higher than the score for the same quarter last year, and satisfaction was up 6 percent since ACSI started grading the e-government sector in 2003. The previous high of 74.1 came during the fourth quarter of 2008 under the Bush administration. Satisfaction dipped early in Obama's presidency, likely because of unrealistic expectations for the Internet president and hesitancy to upgrade sites without guidance from the new administration.

"This is a significant achievement considering that satisfaction with private sector sites has also increased over the same time period, and citizen expectations have adjusted accordingly," the report stated.

The report's author said the increase represents more than natural growth, noting that federal sites are outpacing some popular commercial sites. "When we looked at the best of the best" in both sectors, "the rate of increase is equal to or greater than the private sector," said Larry Freed, president and chief executive officer of ForeSee Results. Five federal sites, including several Social Security Administration and Health and Human Services Department sites, outdid the video rental site Netflix.com and online marketplace Amazon.com.

The agency index does not include White House flagship sites, such as the stimulus-tracker Recovery.gov. But these popular cross-agency portals likely lifted agency scores, Freed said.

Recovery.gov, Data.gov -- a depot of downloadable federal statistics -- and other one-stop shop sites probably offset some dissatisfaction with poor content on individual agency sites, he said. In addition, the information clearinghouses often link to specific content on agency sites, which prevents users from getting lost and translates into increased satisfaction with agency site navigation.

"Recovery.gov gives you an alternative way to get to the right information on the agency sites," Freed said.

The bump this quarter, while relatively large, is not indicative of a sea change, cautioned Anthony M. Cresswell, deputy director of the Center for Technology in Government at the State University of New York at Albany. On a 100-point scale, where most scores fall within a 20-point range, a somewhat small fluctuation can appear big, he said.

"Satisfaction is always related to expectations and expectations can be pretty volatile," Cresswell added. The center recently received a roughly $150,000 federal grant to help the General Services Administration design a research project on effective citizen services.

"If the Obama administration was bumping up expectations from the beginning, now there is a catching up going on," Cresswell said. "Expectations were not being met at first, and now expectations are being ratcheted down a bit and performance is being ratcheted up a bit."

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