Agencies' Web applications fail to provide meaningful services

Report recommends making line-of-business executives accountable for users adopting services and costs of online tools.

Federal agencies need to invest in Web development more strategically, creating online services that help meet missions and better serve citizens, according to a report released on by a management consulting firm.

Despite spending enormous sums on automating government practices, progress on electronic government appears to have plateaued, according to the report "E-government 2.0," published by McKinsey & Co.

The stagnation in developing a digital government occurred after the Internet boom of the late 1990s, which spawned a race by among federal agencies to develop Web sites. "By the time you get to 1998, you have the first U.S. portal," said Elaine Kamarck, lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and former head of President Clinton's National Performance Review. "This improved productivity." Kamarck was part of a panel discussing the electronic government hosted by the Center for American Progress.

But a decade later, e-government services have not delivered on promises, according to the report, which pointed to a government agency that invested millions of dollars to develop a service to enable citizens to manage accounts with the government online, but achieved an adoption rate of less than 5 percent. The agency was not named.

In addition, if agencies fail to view Web services as a business asset, it leads to a lack of oversight and fragmented management. For example, one federal agency found it had more than 100 internal Web sites, dozens of external sites, and multiple tools and platforms to maintain them, the report noted. Lack of oversight increases costs and inefficiencies, and impedes adoption by the public because users are required to sign-on in multiple places.

"Government is being asked to do more under tremendous fiscal restraints," said Nancy Killefer, senior director of McKinsey & Co. "In order to meet demands, this government is going to have to improve capabilities of its organizations to deliver more with the same resources. That's about productivity. How do you streamline what you do, and improve effectiveness using the same resources?"

Killefer, whom President Obama appointed deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget until she withdrew her name because of unpaid unemployment taxes, pointed to the Internal Revenue Service's Web site as an example of a federal site that uses the Internet strategically, allowing the public to file taxes online.

"It turns out that being able to do that delivers better service, lower cost for government, and better performance in terms of error rates," she said. "When you drive improved processes and services, you reduce costs. It's not a dichotomy -- 'cut costs, get worse service.' "

The report recommends that agencies elevate the governance model for e-government initiatives so that lines-of-business executives are held accountable for users adopting the service, the costs of the online tools and for establishing teams to support development and management. Agencies also should embrace industry expertise and innovation, the study noted. In 2008, five of the leading Web analyst firms were hired six times by federal agencies, according to the report, and the five largest Web design firms were not hired at all.

Citizen expectations must be considered, as well. "Don't decide what people want, but listen and involve them. Create a metric that is actually meaningful," Killefer said.