Federal website performance continues to lag

Federal websites continue to slip on performance metrics related to page-load speed, mobile friendliness, security and accessibility, an ITIF report finds.

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Americans depend on more than 4,500 federal websites to access critical government services and information, but a report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation finds of 91 percent of the most popular agency websites are failing to perform well in at least one key performance metric.

The second edition of ITIF's “Benchmarking U.S. Government Websites” report follows up and expands on the initial ITIF report released in March. The organization tested 469 websites using publicly available tools for page-load speed, mobile friendliness, security and accessibility.

“As more people go online for public services and as security threats continue to evolve, it is important for federal websites to be more convenient, accessible, and secure,” ITIF research fellow Galia Nurko said. “This report shows a significant amount of work left to be done to modernize federal websites and ensure that, as technology advances, federal websites improve in turn.”

In terms of page-load speed, tests were done with both desktop computers and mobile devices. Six-three percent of federal websites passed the desktop page-load speed test -- down from 73 percent in the initial report -- while 27 percent passed the mobile page-load test, compared to 36 percent in the earlier report.

Users also encountered problems caused by improper use of metatags that configure websites for mobile devices and by links or buttons that were too small for easy mobile use. Only 61 percent of websites were mobile friendly, although that was a slight improvement over the 59 percent in the initial report.

When it comes to security, the sites were tested on both Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure standard and Domain Name System Security protocols. To test for HTTPS, ITIF used a tool to analyze each website's Secure Sockets Layer certificates that underpin HTTPS connections.

Seventy-one percent of the websites passed the SSL test, which was an improvement from the initial report's 67 percent. Testing for the DNSSEC protocols found 88 percent of federal websites enabled the security feature, down from 90 percent in the initial report. Sixty-four percent of websites passed both the HTTPS and DNSSEC tests, up from 61 percent.

For users with disabilities, websites were tested on range of issues. Sixty percent of the websites were deemed accessible for users with disabilities compared to 58 percent in the original report.

“Despite the common acknowledgment that federal websites fall far short of federal requirements and industry standards, little progress has been made to improve and modernize them over the course of the past year,” Daniel Castro, ITIF vice president and the report's lead author, said. “The Trump administration should move quickly to address these failures and ensure the federal government is providing all Americans with secure, convenient access to online government services and information.”

ITIF also urged federal policymakers to take the following steps to improve and optimize government websites:

  1. Launch a website modernization sprint to fix known problems.
  2. Require federal websites to meet basic desktop and mobile page-load speeds.
  3. Launch a website consolidation initiative.
  4. Require all federal agencies to report website analytics through the General Services Administration.
  5. Appoint a federal CIO to lead IT modernization efforts.
  6. Encourage non-executive agencies and branches of government to adopt federal website best practices.

Read the full report here.

This article originally appeared in FCW's sibling publication GCN.