researchGovernment Web sites are not reaching the public as effectively as they might. This phenomenon is common around the world and while some sites have functional value to the public, research shows that people are confused, ignorant or unable to find what they need from many government sites.
To improve their usability, governments should examine practical steps to reach citizens, firstly by marketing the sites in conjunction with improved navigation and, if required, re-designing sites for users to know what they can find on them.
Secondly, refine the execution of the sites, with special reference to improving the quality of sophisticated interaction that is possible between citizens and the administration. This process should be conducted in the context of the strategic objectives of e-government policy if they are to achieve that particular policy target.
Observations: Late last year the National Audit Office in the UK released data showing how useful and popular government Web sites are. The report showed that many sites were never used, or had very low usage, and weighed against their cost, they are 'white elephants'. For instance, one government site had 77 unique visitors last year; several others only a few hundred. What the report quantified was the increase in government sites dedicated to specific subjects but without a strategic mandate as to their communication purpose. Furthermore, the cost of managing these cyber properties was unknown.
The Australian Federal Government does not publish similar statistics, although there is a valuable report on people's usage and satisfaction of Australian sites.1 That report shows that Australians are generally happy with government sites and the trend in usage is rising. Whilst growing reach is one side of the Web site objective, the quality and depth of the contact with citizens is critical in any assessment of its value in investment dollars.
From the report, the chart below shows the most sophisticated level of contact between government and citizens is the largest category.
Fig 1: Use of Government Web sites
In detail, the most popular online services were:
Income or personal tax
Land rates tax
Car, boat, vehicle registration
Family benefit allowances
In all of the online services listed above an exchange of information is necessary; however, and paradoxically, the study states that users also have very low value contact with government. This is because, as the report noted, the Internet was used for "unambiguous tasks". People were reluctant to use the Net for complicated activities where personal contact or the telephone would be an easier method of doing a task. In the survey the major reasons why people limited their interaction with Web sites and found them a hindrance to use were difficulties with navigation and ignorance of the services available.
The Australian condition is not unique. The European Union produced a similar report in 2005 and the chart below shows the key outcome.2 People obtain information from the sites but use other methods to contact government bureaux because that is what is possible. Government Web site complexity also confused users and was a barrier to usage.
Fig 2: Average degree of sophistication of basic public services online by country
Examining online usage in more detail, the Italian Ministry of Innovation and Technology conducted a study which revealed similar patterns to the other studies. The Italian report makes it clear that the difficulty people in various countries have with government Web sites is universal.
Italian online users said that sophisticated information exchange and contact was limited with government sites. They also expressed problems with finding information and said it was too general. In the Italian survey, respondents were asked what they wanted from government sites and they said they wanted more personalised services, for example: to find personal documents; health services; and to search for jobs, amongst other things.
The Australian online report defines the Federal government's e-government strategic objective "as the process of transforming government so that the use of the Internet and electronic processes are central to the way government operates. E-government is about changing the issues around access to services by individual citizens and businesses." Based on the evidence from the survey this objective is a work in progress and the target has not yet been reached.
By comparison, the Italian government says that its online services will transform the relationship between the administration and the public.3 The difference between the Australian and Italian government statements is the latter explicitly states the public role in forming the government's response and that the government should serve that public wish; the Australian statement is an abstract management aim.
The common finding from all these studies is that citizens use government sites in limited ways and they could use them more interactively if it was possible.
The challenge to government is to utilise the Internet to deliver complex and interactive services to the public. The Australian Government should apply business best practice and focus on delivering more sophisticated interaction, especially to allow individuals to complete complex tasks through its Web sites. In so doing the investment in online services would be more effective, with higher satisfaction with government services. A major step in realising that objective would be for the Australian Federal Government to adopt UK practice and audit its online reach and usage and thus produce comparable data to assess the cost/value of its Web sites.
1Australians' Use and Satisfaction with E-Government Services, AGIMO, 2005 2e-Government 2004: internet based interaction with European businesses and citizens, European Commission, 2005 3 "...la digitalizzazione ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¨ evoluta e l'interazione ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¨ completa nelle due direzioni. ÃƒÆ’Ã‹â€ ritenuto talmente importante questo processo che l'opinione pubblica auspice che la Pubblica Amministrazione assolva anche a un ruolo formativo nei confronti del mezzo internet." L'"Osservatorio Permanente della SocietÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â dell'Informazione No. 3", Chapter 5, November 2005, Ministro per l'innovazione e le tecnologie
Guy Cranswick specialises in marketing communications, media platforms and channel strategy, including areas of business planning. He is the winner of the Australian Institute of Management 2003 article prize on the topic, "Delivering Credible Corporate Communications". Guy has worked in the UK and France as Strategy Manager for Initiative Media and director of European operations for Modem Media (Poppe Tyson), a Web marketing and development company. In Australia, Guy was Senior Analyst at both Jupiter Communications and later at GartnerG2 covering Business and Online strategy in Asia-Pacific.