Government Web sites 'fail' citizens

A board of reviewers has found that while much information is available for citizens looking for government assistance, it is often badly-organised and hard to find

Government Web sites are failing to meet the basic needs of citizens who turn to them for help and advice on debt, housing, health and employment, according to a report by the Society of IT managers (Socitm) and Citizens Advice Bureaux.

The CAB devised a series of questions to test relevant government Web sites based on the problems most frequently reported to the agency -- consumer debt, disability benefits, income support, employment and legal proceedings.

A team of reviewers tested questions such as, "Can the application form (for benefit) be completed and returned electronically?" and entered terms such as "disability benefit" and "free prescriptions" into Google to see if it took the person to a relevant government Web site.

The results showed that while there is often plenty of information online, much of it is poorly structured and signposted.

"Government on the Web falls well short of what citizens really need in terms of usefulness and usability," the report said.

Web sites that were tested included the Department of Trade and Industry, Department for Work and Pensions, Financial Services Authority, Legal Service Commission, Community Legal Service, NHS, NHS Direct, OFGEM, Trading Standards Central, UKOnline and the 16 most used local authority sites.

While search terms such as "income support" generally took people to the Department for Work and Pensions, searches for "money problems" and "debt advice" took the reviewers to a story from The Guardian on Cambodia and to an organisation offering free advice -- and unsecured loans.

"The evidence from the Google searches shows that the problems as people report them to bureaux across the country are not being catered for by Web sites, because the problems often do not lead to obvious sources of information," the report said. "Furthermore, once the right Web site is found, its ability to provide the right information is far from reliable."

The performance of UKOnline, which is supposed to act as a gateway for government services, was described as "patchy" and "disappointing".

Martin Greenwood, programme manager for Socitm Insight, said in a statement: "All parts of government should take as broad a view as possible of the difficulties of citizens and consumers of their services. The Citizens Advice list of common problems and the questions that might be linked to them are a good starting point."