Why Can’t Government Websites Be More Like Amazon?

Gil C/Shutterstock.com

It's complicated, but more federal digital services are about to start focusing on the user.

People expect more from websites these days, and nearly everybody agrees federal agencies haven’t quite stepped up to the challenge yet.

That's in part why the administration recently launched the new U.S. Digital Service, whose first project --  a “playbook” of best practices for transforming digital services -- is prodding agencies thinking about revamping their online offerings to first “understand what people need.”

“That’s really where the future of government digital services is: being user-focused,” Nick Sinai, the federal government’s deputy chief technology officer said Monday at Nextgov Prime, the annual conference on technology in government.

It matters because websites are increasingly central to one of government’s key functions: providing services to the public. But for federal agencies, being user friendly often carries higher stakes than for a private sector startup. 

That was one of the key takeaways from a new report published Monday by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and consulting firm Accenture Federal Services.

“Citizens reporting higher levels of satisfaction with government services are more likely to report that they trust the government,” the report stated. 

The authors cited a recent Pew survey that found only 19 percent of Americans trust the government, down from 73 percent when the question was first asked in 1958.

Feds Rank Lower Than Airlines, Cable TV on Customer Service

Amazon, Google and other companies have raised users’ expectations for fast and easy digital services, but it’s not just the private sector giants that are winning in this area. Federal online customer service also lags behind that of states and smaller localities, and the country is now seventh in the United Nations’ e-government rankings -- down from second in 2010.

John Palguta, the partnership’s vice president for policy, said some of the obstacles the federal government faces aren't always apparent to the public.

“I’m appalled at the fact that the federal government has lower customer satisfaction scores than the airlines, than cellphone carriers and cable TV,” Palguta said during a phone interview Monday. “But it’s a little more complicated in government. There are some real challenges for government.”  

Palguta noted the difficulties agencies face in navigating well-intentioned but antiquated paperwork and privacy laws and other stipulations set out in congressional appropriations. The report urges lawmaker to act on legislation, such as the Government Customer Services Improvement Act, versions of which were introduced last year in the House and the Senate.

Experts Call For Simplicity: 'One Government' Approach Needed

In addition to highlighting successes and drawing on lessons learned, the report emphasized the need for what it called a "one government approach."

“Citizens interacting with government should not have to understand and navigate a complex hierarchy of departments, agencies and offices to receive benefits or services,” the report argued  -- a sentiment echoed Monday by Sinai, the White House official. 

Palguta said he urges federal managers to take a hard look at their own digital services, from the user's perspective. 

For example, he said, managers should try logging on to USAJobs.gov and going through the application process for a job in their agency -- without submitting the final application, of course. 

“In the day-to-day process, you sometimes lose sight of what’s coming out the spigot, and you really need to take a fresh a look from the users' perspective,” he said.

(Image via Gil C/Shutterstock.com)

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