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Cybersense—With Little to Lose, Lots of Government Sites Fall Short

No bureaucrat ever got fired because his or her dot-com division had a lackluster quarter. You won’t see division managers at the Department of Labor sweating an IPO. And the friendly folks at the state revenue department have never spent 48 hours straight hammering out code to hit an e-commerce launch date. So it shouldn’t come as a shock that government Web sites have fallen behind commercial pages in terms of utility and user-friendliness. While many companies depend on their sites to attract visitors and keep them clicking, government agencies have little motive to make their Web pages any more inviting than the lobby at the local DMV. Still, it’s disappointing to learn exactly how bad dot-gov sites can be. A new study from Brown University suggests our public servants are having trouble providing even the most basic services Web users have come to expect. Brown’s Taubman Center for Public Policy surveyed 1,813 government sites, including 36 federal government sites, 61 federal court sites and 1,716 state government sites. Researchers were looking for the fundamentals, including contact information, external links, privacy policies and the like. They also evaluated the level of useful services offered online, checked into access for the disabled and looked for multimedia features. Missing the mark The results weren’t pretty. Just 7 percent of the sites posted privacy policies, with state government sites among the chief offenders. While the Federal Trade Commission has chastened private Web sites to disclose their data-collection practices, just one in four of the federal government sites surveyed could claim to do the same. Only 15 percent of government sites offer special access to the disabled, a figure that would be criminal if it applied to government buildings. And barely one in five government sites gives visitors a chance to actually do something, such as filling out a form, requesting a hearing or paying a traffic fine. Just 34 percent of sites posted answers to frequently asked questions. That might not seem like much of an oversight, but most people who visit government sites aren’t there to check out the official seal. They’ve got questions, and probably the same ones the last guy had. Brown researchers may have been setting the bar a bit high in complaining that just 5 percent of the sites included multimedia clips. It shouldn’t be too much to ask for a phone number, though, and nearly one in 10 government sites don’t even post one. This sort of performance doesn’t bode well for those who would have the government enforce privacy rules and other regulations online. If these clowns can’t even post privacy policies on their own sites, how can they expect to keep up with anyone else’s pages? White House follies Even lame commercial sites have left high-level government sites in the dust. Proof of this point is only a typo away, from whitehouse.gov one of the lowest scorers in Brown’s study to whitehouse.com, a porn site. Whitehouse.com has 15 live video feeds, live chat, streaming audio and downloadable movies with “sensual sounds.” White-house.gov offers press releases, a bit of history and some pictures of the house. You can listen to the president’s weekly radio address, but it didn’t seem at all sensual to me. Whitehouse.com has interactive forms and accepts credit card transactions. Whitehouse.gov has lots of information about White House tours but doesn’t let you sign up for one. Whitehouse.com exploits young women in a humiliating sexual fashion. The real White House well, I think we all get the point. There are exceptions, of course. My local county government, for example, did an excellent job of posting last month’s primary election results online as they were being counted. And other agencies have learned that the hard work that goes into providing a service online is ultimately cheaper than conducting that business in person. As for the rest of those glum.govs, someone should figure out a way to introduce them to the market pressures that keep commercial sites on their toes. Maybe federal agencies could compete for funding, with top-rated sites getting more staff and the losers being downgraded to a free page on GeoCities. There’s no way government sites will ever keep up with the best of the Web. But it would be nice if at least the White House had more user-friendly features than the pornographers next door. To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at joes@azstarnet.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL, 60611.

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