Survey: Public Wants Government Websites to Be Easier to Use

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Government’s sites are also perceived as more secure than commercial sites, a new Booz Allen Hamilton survey suggests.

Public optimism around government websites is on the rise and .gov sites continue to be considered the top information source for federal insights. But fewer people reported accessing those sites and most believe they should function more like commercial websites in terms of design, navigation and mobile-friendliness, according to the results of Booz Allen Hamilton’s 2019 federal customer experience survey.

The company plans to make the survey publicly available in the coming weeks, but Executive Vice President Dee Dee Helfenstein shared details around the results with Nextgov Friday. 

Helfenstein noted that there are at least 4,500 federal websites with more than 18 million visitors every year. 

Conducted in partnership with Ipsos Public Affairs, the survey is the second annual report of federal customer experience. Officials surveyed 1,000 people between Jan. 2 and 7. More than half of the respondents reported annual household incomes of less than $75,000 and 40% were between the ages of 18 and 34. 

The results suggest that while perceptions around using federal websites are more positive compared to last year, respondents would particularly like to see the government improve the sites’ ease of use. In 2018, only 26% of respondents said they’d accessed federal websites over the last 12 months. This year, that number jumped to 35%, indicating an increase in .gov website usage. But while the majority of people believe federal websites remain the No. 1 source to obtain pertinent federal information—70% in 2019—that’s actually 8% fewer people than in 2018. 

All other sources, including mail, email and in-person, were deemed to be more accessible sources by 10% or more this year compared to 2018. 

“Although we see them accessing information across a broad spectrum of ways—digitally, via mail and other mechanisms—respondents said that they actually prefer interacting with the government digitally,” Helfenstein said. “And by the way, don’t we all, right? Who actually wants to pick up the phone anymore—we all want to do it online.” 

Respondents were also asked to state how much they agree to statements about certain attributes describing .gov and commercial websites, to provide insights on their perceptions around how the sites operate. All descriptions of federal sites revealed statistically significant positive differences between the two years. 

Notably, federal sites are believed to have stronger security than their commercial counterparts. About two-thirds of respondents strongly or somewhat agreed that federal sites were secure in 2018, while 75% said so this year, compared to 71% who perceived commercial websites as secure for both years. 

Helfenstein said while it can be frustrating for people to track “50 different logins” to access various federal sites for a variety of services, it demonstrates how the government effectively prioritizes privacy and protection of personal information.

“I think that the government has indeed put a lot of time and effort into privacy and security and I think the other side of that point is there have been some very recent issues in the commercial side around privacy and computers, not only data losses but what data is being used for,” she said. “And I think both sides of those coins play into that perception.”

Still, less than 50% of people believe federal websites are easy to access on their phones, much less offer strong customization options. More than a third also recommended that .gov sites become more mobile-friendly, which almost doubled from 19% who said so last year. And while 82% of people somewhat or strongly agreed that it’s easy to obtain what they are looking for on commercial sites, 61% said the same of .gov sites.

Helfenstein noted that 80% of internet users also own smartphones and 75% of emails are opened by a smartphone. She said it’s increasingly critical to get easy-to-navigate information online through designing systems with responsive design, which essentially ensures that whatever tools individuals use to access the sites—albeit tablets, laptops, or smartphones—the website information is designed to work intuitively with that device. 

“We’ve got millennials, but also my kids are digital natives, you know, they’ve always grown up with computers and phones really in their hands,” she said. “So it’s really important that that mobile-readiness is part of the overall digital movement with these government websites.”

Respondents also said federal websites can improve their experience across all areas, but particularly in helping them better navigate the sites and making them more accessible and easier to use. Almost 60% of respondents said the government could make it easier for them to find information via the sites and enable the public to use them to complete all their needs online. More than 40% asked for additional functionality to be able to submit forms and applications online, while 30% or more want the government sites to offer more intuitive design, improved functionality, boosted site-loading speeds and the option to make appointments online.

And while most government websites fall behind commercial ones when if comes to usability and overall user experience ratings, some are catching up. While 70% of people reported “very positive” experiences with Amazon and 66% were happy with Netflix, 54% reported very positive experiences with SSA.gov and 51% reported the same for Recreation.gov. VA.gov, Healthcare.gov, FAFSA.gov and IRS.gov lagged behind with 40% or less overall user experience ratings.

But Helfenstein also noted that the government has a sharp focus on making necessary improvements. She said spending focused on digital citizen services rose 17% over the last year, from $3.6 billion to $4.2 billion. Another example of how this is becoming an even greater priority is the passage of the 21st Century IDEA Act, which went into effect last year requiring each agency to submit plans to Congress on how they plan to modernize their sites. 

“And so I think it's important from a policy perspective, we are seeing government spending on it, we are seeing more visitors to these websites and I think the government is really doing some creative things here,” she said. 

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