When a country is as large as Australia, it's a big job to connect the nation's estimated 21 million people with public services. To inform its citizens about how their country can help them, the government created Australia.gov.au, a national Web site linking users to services and information to aid them at home, work and elsewhere.
As the go-to site for a nation of six states and 10 territories, Australia.gov.au has much ground to cover -- literally and figuratively. It's a repository of Web links to services and information that all levels of governments -- state, federal, territory and city -- have to offer. The portal features: an internal search engine; more than 800 links to public sites; separate directories of federal, state, territory and city sites and departments; travel information; weather updates; current and historical country information; an alphabetical list of government contact numbers by subject; an e-mail subscription service for news and media releases; and a really simple syndication (RSS) delivery option for news and podcasts. RSS enables people to receive news articles, headlines and other data via XML technology.
The United Nations (U.N.) ranked Australia No. 8 out of the top 35 countries on e-government readiness because of its national portal in the E-Government Survey 2008 -- just four places behind the United States. The U.N. designed the survey to gauge how nations deliver e-services to citizens. Australia.gov.au impressed surveyors with its comprehensiveness, information, links to government resources and how it serves as the gateway to other integrated portals, such as the national job search site, and the Centrelink citizen information and services portal. Although the Australian portal is ranked slightly behind the United States, the Aussies have an edge in the user-input department. The portal's user-feedback mechanism, the 60 Second Survey, is more comprehensive and a tad easier to find than a similar U.S. application. The link, "60 Second Survey," is located on the front page below the heading "Have Your Say," and takes users to a questionnaire loaded with buttons, dropdown menus and two input boxes. Users of USA.gov must click on the "e-mail usa.gov" link that takes them to a smaller feedback form with fewer input opportunities.
Designed to Impress
"The thing that makes it so successful is it's relatively straightforward. It's easy to understand, so it's very accessible," said Peter Alexander, branch manager of the Online Service Point Branch of the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO).
Australia.gov.au is designed for usability and the lynchpin of its appeal is how the links to legions of government programs are arranged on pages. The home page features a menu of subjects to browse and a row of tabbed links for more specific needs. Users who click on the "Info For" tab, can find information and services arranged by user type.
Information obtained by the 60 Second Survey includes users' connection speeds, opinions on various portal aspects and how they think the site could improve.
But even with all of these features, Alexander is modest about the site's offerings and works to improve it.
"What we've got at the moment with Australia.gov, we would phrase it as a Web portal 1.0; it's just a linking site that people can come to as a starting point and then go throughout the federal government agencies and get their services," he said.
He estimates that about 20 percent of Australia.gov.au's content is original. Much of this original content comprises text describing where links will take users.
Enhanced Service Delivery
But if, like Alexander said, Australia.gov.au is merely
at the Web portal 1.0 stage, what will take it to version 2.0 and beyond? "In terms of functions, we're building accounts for citizens, so they can come to the site and build an Australia.gov account, which then personalizes their view of government," he said. The accounts would let users filter in the services and let government agencies they prefer track their past actions.
This account through the main site could potentially then be linked to accounts users have with specific government agencies. And if Alexander and his team have their way, this would all be facilitated by a single sign-on feature so a user won't have to log on repeatedly for each account.
These improvements would be aided in part by a more sophisticated service directory. Say an account holder is a plumber from Sydney who is married with two children: Australia.gov.au could present him or her with services that might fit that particular profile.
"But then if they told us more information, such as, 'I have three children, I'm divorced, and my income is in [a certain] range,' we could give them more information specific to them," Alexander said.
Another enhancement AGIMO has planned is more online forms for electronic service delivery, which is outlined in Australia's 2006 e-Government Strategy, a strategic plan of IT projects to complete by 2010. On the back end, this means different agencies will use the same form-building technology and templates, and consequently the same standard for online document creation. They'll let users have a more consistent experience when applying for services from agency to agency. The government decided on these enhancements to address citizen concerns after conducting multiple surveys -- about one a year since at least 2004 -- to gauge Australians' satisfaction with e-government.
AGIMO also plans to aggressively market the portal's availability to Australians, similar to how the United States has marketed USA.gov.
"We have never had an individual marketing campaign for it," he said. "We tend to still advertise individual government programs."
Alexander said AGIMO is deciding how to market the site over the next year. But even without aggressive marketing, Alexander estimates that Australia.gov.au has grown in popularity. He said the number of visitors increased from around 250,000 a month two years ago to more than 600,000 a month today.