In the week the Department of Trade and Industry's (DTI) Patricia Hewitt promised to increase the number of people accessing government services online, a study has slammed the current condition of many government Websites -- with Hewitt's own coming in for particular criticism.
Website evaluation outfit Business2www (B2W) conducted an automated test of 46 of the leading UK government, political and public service sites, and found that over half contained a significant number of errors, typically broken links and incorrect email addresses.
The Inland Revenue, the Department of Health and HM Treasury were the worst offenders.
The site belonging to Hewitt, the secretary of state for trade and industry, came bottom of B2W's overall benchmark index, which takes into account additional factors such as download speeds.
Government Websites tend to be large -- about seven times the size of the average UK FTSE 100 corporate Website, according to Business2www -- and many errors are unavoidable in complex dynamic sites undergoing continuous change.
But the average UK corporate site had 573 errors when tested by the company. The government average was 1,927.
The report says: "Despite their size, this is an unacceptable error level. Many of these Websites purport to be models of site quality assurance, maintenance and control."
The sites of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Department of Culture Media and Sport and Commission for Racial Equality were identified as the best of a bad bunch.
A spokeswoman for the DTI said: "The quality and ease of use of our Website is obviously of great importance to us. We will be looking at the report."
On a more positive note, the government sites surveyed outperformed the FTSE 100 in terms of server response times and average download speeds.
In a National Audit Office (NAO) report released in April, the government was praised for "the effort and resources" it was putting into boosting central government presence online and in promoting e-government among local authorities.
However, that report called for the Office of the e-Envoy to "move beyond campaigning for e-government towards a service delivery style with emphasis on implementation".
At the time, Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO, said: "A significant amount of taxpayer's money is being spent in central and local government in introducing Internet-based services. I have found considerable progress since my previous report in 1999 but weaknesses in information across government on the usage of its Websites, performance indicators to measure progress and methodologies to assess the value added by e-government provision."
On Tuesday, Hewitt said that the government's deadline to get all its services online by 2005 is no longer the sole objective: reacting to research which showed that only one in 10 citizens had actually logged on to such sites, she promised to add usage targets to the criteria by which the success of the government's strategy will be measured. Those targets are yet to be drawn-up.