Friday, September 23, 2011

What are the top things we can do to improve government websites?

The US has launched an interesting discussion asking citizens how they think the Federal government can improve government websites.

Run using Ideascale, an online idea management system, the National Dialogue on improving Federal websites is running for two weeks and involves both ideas submission and voting as well as live online discussions(or dialogue-a-thons) on specific website related topics.

I'd love to see this type of initiative organised in Australia, however in the interim it is worth looking at the ideas raised in the US, beginning with the use of Plain language on government websites, Creating content around topics/customers - not agencies, make usability testing and 508 testing (accessibility) required PRIOR to launch, Make Government Website Mobile Accessible and Commit to best practices (using modern web techniques).

If Australian government agencies applied these five top ideas to their own web development (or even applied standards from some of the excellent web links and comments for several of the ideas) we could see a very different level of engagement, potential cut the number of phone calls and ministerials, address hidden issues with incomplete forms and avoid agency embarrassment (when organisations publicly identify government websites that fail basic accessibility or mobile access requirements).

Of course this requires adequately funding and resourcing web teams to carry out these tasks - however this can be offset through mandating external developers to meet government's basic accessibility and content requirements and through using low-cost modern content management frameworks which support significantly greater functionality and require less customisation than the old backroom systems still in place at many agencies.

Even more valuable would be for the Australian government to similarly ask citizens what they thought should be improved about government sites.

I do wonder why Australia appears more fearful or risk-averse to asking citizens these types of questions and building an evidence base on which it can then assess actions. Or maybe it isn't risk-aversion and is simply due to cost (though the service the US uses costs only US$999 per year - and there's even a free version) or due to lack of resources or even interest.

However if the US government, where the political process is on the nose, unemployment is high, the economy is distressed and web budgets are in decline, can ask this question, surely Australia is in a much better position to do so.

To go a little further, to offset the perceptual risk that citizens may expect government agencies to act on specific improvement requests, the consultation could be shaped as an information gathering exercise, where the outcomes will be made available to various agencies to act or not act as they can within their budgets and resourcing.

Or maybe individual agencies can ask the question as part of their website surveys (if they hold them - as I've done regularly in past positions) and share this information across the APS.

What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. I work in a state government agency and people regularly comment on how difficult our site is to navigate. That's even after a huge project to address this very issue after the department sought feedback from stakeholders! Even staff, who know exactly what they are looking for and are familiar with the site structure, usually struggle to find anything on the site.

    You make some very good points, but I won't hold my breath while I wait for any government or government agency to actually do anything about this. I sometimes wonder whether their is a hidden agenda to obfuscate information to protect old ways of thinking and subvert the transparent government agenda, but maybe I'm being too cynical ...