Public satisfaction with federal Web sites increased in 2009

Obama administration should use positive feedback to determine effectiveness of transparency efforts, says research group.

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Citizen satisfaction with federal Web sites increased significantly in 2009, indicating that efforts by the Obama administration to increase transparency in government are getting noticed, according to a new report.

For the last quarter of 2009, more than 250,000 citizens surveyed gave federal Web sites a satisfaction rating of 75.2 out of 100 points, according to a report released by ForeSee Results , a market research firm that issues quarterly reports on public opinion about federal Web sites in conjunction with the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Survey respondents also awarded federal Web sites a satisfaction rating of 75.2 for the third quarter of 2009.

This is a slight increase from the 73.6 satisfaction rating federal Web sites earned in the first and second quarters of 2009.

"Immediately after the inauguration, when President Obama announced his open government and transparency initiatives , we saw a dip in the satisfaction rating as government agencies tried to figure out how they were supposed to implement technology" and juggle their budgets, said Larry Freed, president and chief executive officer of ForeSee Results. "But the number has climbed with the increased focus on transparency by the administration and the growing use of social media and other Web 2.0 services. Those types of capabilities need to start with the Web site."

Freed added customer satisfaction should be the key indicator of whether or not the federal government is fulfilling its pledge to increase transparency.

"The big challenge is coming up with some means of measuring improvement in transparency, because if you can't measure something, you can't improve upon it," he said. "There's a focus on the amount of data made available, but throwing a lot of information at people does little good if they don't understand why it matters. The focus needs to instead be on whether citizens are satisfied with the efforts made by agencies."

The report measured satisfaction with 103 federal Web sites. Earning the highest scores of 90 points were two sites from the Social Security Administration: the SSA Retirement Estimator , which calculates an individual's Social Security benefits based on recorded earnings, and SSA iClaim , which allows citizens to apply for Social Security retirement or disability benefits. The Education Department's Web site, Free Application for Federal Student Aid , or FAFSA, came in third and earned 88 points on the satisfaction index.

According to the report, the three top-rated federal Web sites meet or exceed the private sector's highest score of 88 points earned by, an online computer hardware and software retailer, and 28 of 103 federal sites measured earned average satisfaction scores of 80 or higher.

"Normally private sites perform better, because they're less limited by budgets and federal policies," Freed said. For example, the federal government places restrictions on cookies, or the code stored on a computer that allows Web sites to remember visitors. "But the results show that satisfaction with a lot of the top performing sites exceeded what we see in private sector -- even with Amazon and Google -- which is pretty phenomenal," he added.

Typically, Web sites garner higher marks from citizens when they provide greater access to information, functionality and easy navigation.