Federal Agency Websites to Get Customer Relations Makeover

Managers of federal agency websites will be focusing on customer relations to meet the requirements of an ambitious program designed to improve the value of the government’s online public resources. Over the next two months or so, agencies will be drilling down into their website mechanisms to determine whether their electronic presence truly meets the needs of the public — in much the same way as a private sector firm measures audience satisfaction.

The federal website reform effort got under way last June, but moved into higher gear with the issuance of a more specific directive by the new federal chief information officer, Steven VanRoekel, in early August. The directive calls for federal agencies to assess their websites with the goal of significantly consolidating — not only to reduce costs, but also to be more responsive to the public. The assessments must be completed by the end of October, and must include longer-term plans for efficient website management.

The enthusiasm for creating websites has resulted in a proliferation of federal Web domains that now number 2,000, supporting 24,000 separate sites. The Obama administration wants a 50 percent reduction in the number of domains by June of 2012.

The August directive calls for federal agencies to use customer-oriented metrics in reviewing the status of their websites, by considering a number of factors:

  • How much visitor traffic is the site generating? Could more people access the content if it were housed on another site already generating a high volume of traffic?
  • What is the user performance? How well can people accomplish their top tasks on this site (not just starting at a government site, but also from a commercial search engine)? Is user performance improving, declining, or staying steady? Are agencies measuring task completion rates, time to complete tasks, other user performance metrics?
  • Is the site fulfilling its intended purpose and reaching its intended audience? What metrics are being used to demonstrate that?
  • What is the level of customer satisfaction with the site? Is satisfaction increasing or decreasing?
  • Does the value of delivering the content (volume of visitors plus performance) exceed the cost of maintaining the site?

Search Factor Impact

The reform program incorporates factors that have created a new normal in electronic communications that has emerged in the course of just a few years. One key element is the vastly improved ability to search the Internet through various mechanisms, rather than going directly to a commercial or government site.

“By default, it has become somewhat of a standard practice to create a new website to showcase every new program. But because the search function now plays such a vital role in how people find information on the Web, setting up a new site actually makes it more difficult to find information, because new sites may take a while to build up good search engine rankings,” Rachel Flagg, deputy director of the Center for Excellence in Digital Government at the General Services Administration (GSA) told CRM Buyer. GSA is providing support to the reform effort through its direction of the Federal Web Managers Council.

“Agencies need to leverage the visibility of their department-level websites and employ good search engine optimization to help the public find government information online,” Flagg said.

“Most people use search tools like Google to find information they’re looking for, and government websites aren’t always as search-friendly as they should be. Using people-friendly language while working to optimize search results will have a significant effect,” Daniel Schuman, director of the Advisory Committee on Transparency for the Sunlight Foundation, told CRM Buyer.

The reform effort is largely being directed by a special panel of federal website managers known as the “.Gov Task Force.” GSA also is helping to staff that panel.

“We think the task force in general is a very positive initiative that will have incredible paybacks in the long term across a couple of fronts,” Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee, told CRM Buyer. “First, from early reports from agencies, it looks like reducing duplication and dot-gov domains will actually save them money.”

ForeSee is a customer experience analytics firm that works with more than 200 federal government websites.

Courting the Customer

“Second,” Freed continued, “I am convinced the reform program will also improve the user experience. Any time you improve the user experience in a scientifically quantifiable way, more customers will use your site instead of other, costlier channels. When someone abandons one channel for another, we used to call that channel competition. But federal sites can make the most of channel competition by choosing the most cost-effective channel — the website — and making it as good as it needs to be to encourage citizens to use it for self-service.”

The reform effort could take some lessons from private sector commercial website applications.

“There is a lot that public sites can learn from the private sector. First and foremost, private-sector sites have a powerful, built-in penalty for failing to provide a good customer experience: They go out of business. There is no similar penalty in the public sector,” Freed said. “As a result, many of the best practices from the private sector — in terms of search, navigation, usability, design — apply in the public sector as well.”

That doesn’t mean that all federal websites are lacking.

“There there are also some things the private sector can learn from the public sector. We measure thousands of websites across industries, and some of the highest-scoring are dot-gov sites. Social Security has some sites with scores in the 90s, which is higher than Google, Amazon, and all the best private-sector sites,” Freed said.

“These government sites do so well because they consistently meet and exceed expectations. It’s not that Social Security has better navigation or better features than Amazon. It’s that they are assessing expectations and exceeding them. That’s more challenging for a private-sector site, but it’s something to strive for,” he added.

One major federal department has already achieved significant benefits from revamping its website. In early August the U.S. Department of Energy reported that an overhaul of its website would save more than US$10 million per year. As part of the government-wide effort to consolidate IT functions, the department merged content from 11 program office sites to a central platform.

The new site was built using Drupal, an open source content management system, and has been transitioned to cloud-hosted infrastructure. These back-end changes provide a scalable and flexible architecture that supports innovative, efficient online engagement, according to DoE.

The new website makes it easier for visitors to get localized information specific to their cities, counties and states on tax credits, rebates, energy saving tips and grant opportunities. As a result of the upgrade, the department is also now able to offer more open data sets for individuals to use and apply to other online applications. Over the next year, the department will continue to improve the site by moving more program websites and features to the centralized platform.

John K. Higgins is a career business writer, with broad experience for a major publisher in a wide range of topics including energy, finance, environment and government policy. In his current freelance role, he reports mainly on government information technology issues for ECT News Network.

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