Federal websites suffering from lack of consistency, standards

Tuesday - 12/20/2011, 2:54pm EST

Agency websites are a mess. That is one of the major conclusions one can draw from the .gov Reform Task Force's State of Federal Web report.

The task force found a mishmash of approaches to design, Web hosting, performance metrics, Web policies and a host of other inconsistencies across the government.

The report found there are more than 1,400 domains and 11,000 websites across the largest 56 agencies. Agencies reported 19 percent of those domains are inactive and they plan to eliminate or merge 442 sites in the near future.

"Of the 824 live and inactive, under development domains, the most popular target audiences included federal employees, researchers, press and media, consumers," the report stated. "A high number of agencies cited federal employees as a primary audience. This may be because those individuals regularly use their agency's website as part of their job. This data should not necessarily be interpreted to indicate that agencies believe their content is primarily directed toward government employees."

Additionally, agencies use 250 different Web hosting service providers, 65 percent of which are run by the government.

Few agency sites follow the same design standards and only four of the 24 largest agencies said they were developing an agencywide approach to website design.

"The report is intended to highlight — for the first time — the size and scope of websites in the federal executive branch, how agencies are managing them, and opportunities for improvement," the report stated. "Though not a comprehensive assessment of every federal executive branch website, this data provides a high-level overview and is the first step to more effectively collecting data to make better decisions about our federal Web operations. The .gov Reform Task Force and its partners will use this data to develop a federal Web strategy and create tools, best practices, and other resources that will make Federal websites more efficient and useful for citizens."

President Barack Obama called on agencies to improve customer service in an April executive order. The Office of Management and Budget followed by freezing new federal websites in June, and creating the .gov Reform Task Force in August.

OMB froze all new .gov websites through Dec. 31. An email to OMB asking if they would extend the freeze was not immediately returned.

OMB and the General Services Administration led the task force in surveying 56 of the largest agencies between August and October.

The survey found the Treasury Department has the most domains, 160, and NASA has the most public facing websites, 1,590.

Three-quarters of the respondents say they measure website performance based on traffic and search log analysis, while 31 percent say they also use usability testing. But only 17 percent say they have a consistent approach to measure website performance.

"Nearly all of the agencies alluded to the fact that much of the decision-making with regard to specific domains/websites happens within operating units and not at an agency level," the report stated. "Many agencies asked for additional guidance and assistance in developing integrated web governance plans and migration processes for their domains."

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