Worst of the Web

Somebody tell government: A great online presence isn’t reserved for agencies with extensive resources.

Every year, this publication gives out Best of the Web awards in recognition of cities and states that have produced excellent websites. However, while there are some great success stories, this is the exception, rather than the norm.

Recently my colleagues and I set out to answer the question of “why are so many government websites just plain bad?” by reviewing the speed, security, mobile-friendliness and accessibility of nearly 300 of the most popular federal websites. What we found is that bad websites are rarely the result of bad intentions, as no agency sets out to build an inferior site. Instead, agencies tend to make mistakes along the way — mistakes that fortunately can be avoided.

To begin with, it is worth reiterating that government agencies are certainly capable of building great websites. Boston, for example, redesigned its website last year to make it more accessible and user-friendly. As part of its upgrades, the city improved its support for hosting content in multiple languages and updated its back-end hosting to create a faster, more responsive site. The result was a modern site designed to meet the needs of a diverse set of residents and businesses.

But Boston built its superb website by partnering with IDEO, one of the world’s best design firms, and Acquia, a local technology company that also happens to be one of the most sophisticated cloud providers for Drupal website hosting, the popular content management system used by Boston for its website. While Boston’s technology team was smart to work with these talented partners, they are not going to be feasible options for every government project because not all projects will command the same level of funding and attention. Instead most agencies must build websites with limited staff and resources, and while this makes building a successful website more challenging, it’s still possible.

The first mistake some governments make is they ignore their own guidance and standards. Government agencies and public officials often make bold promises to build secure, user-friendly websites, but back down from these commitments once they face the day-to-day challenges of maintaining them. For example, many cities struggle to build citizen-centric sites where information is organized around user needs rather than agency needs. The result is inconsistencies as users look up information on city parks, trash removal and transportation, since each of these functions is typically run by a different organization. The solution here is stronger accountability, so that government agencies have clear performance criteria for their websites and are held responsible if they do not meet these benchmarks.

The second mistake some governments make is ignoring best practices from the private sector. While some governments commit to security standards or accessibility guidelines — possibly at higher rates than the private sector — they tend to overlook best practices on design and performance. For example, relatively few government agencies commit to fast page load times or ensuring mobile-friendly Web design even though these are some of the most important metrics for the average commercial website. But user expectations are based on what people are used to, and so the public sector needs to ensure that its websites do not fall behind those of the private sector. To do this, governments should regularly update their website design guidelines to ensure they are adopting best practices from the private sector.

The third mistake some governments make is that they keep websites around long past their expiration date. After all, many government websites are quite good — for their age. But technology changes very quickly — the first iPad was only released in 2010 — and websites must keep up with this pace of change. However, not enough agencies treat their websites as they would any other asset and recognize that it has a finite life cycle and will need replacing. The result is that websites stick around well past when they should have been retired or refreshed. Better management of digital assets can avoid this problem.

In short, government agencies can improve their online presence by developing stronger accountability, learning from the private sector, and better managing the life cycle of websites. Not every agency is going to win an award for Web design, but even if they are not all striving to be the best, they should all be striving to do better. Websites continue to be one of the most important ways that individuals and businesses interact with government, and so agencies should be committed to facilitating this communication as part of their mission.