Dec 31 2009

Teaching by Example

While it improves FirstGov, GSA sets best practices that all agencies can use to make online services more satisfying for citizens.

In early 2002, a White House promise spawned a program that would radically change the way civilians interact with the federal government. In speech after speech, White House officials proposed creating an Office of Citizen Services to help people find government information and services. As that goal shifted from rhetoric to reality, it became clear that the Web and e-government would play a primary role in its fulfillment.

The responsibility for launching the new organization, first tossed to the Office of Management and Budget, eventually landed in the General Services Administration’s Communications Office. Choosing GSA made sense because in 2000 it created the government’s main Web face to the public,, and also had purview over the central citizen help line, 1-800-FED-INFO.

Federal Guinea Pig

Now, tasked by OMB with the pumped-up mission of setting new online best practices for agencies governmentwide, GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Communications (OCSC) is using its efforts on FirstGov and the telephone help line as a test bed for usability standards that will apply to all agencies, and be recommended to state and local governments as well.

“Many government sites — even those with a much more limited mission than FirstGov — have to support users who have very little experience with how an agency or department is organized,” points out M.J. Pizzella, associate administrator of OCSC. It’s that reality, she says, coupled with her office’s experience organizing thousands of links to government services and information, that places her GSA team in the unique position to help others in government create user-friendly sites.

Over the years, FirstGov has been inching up the satisfaction ratings tallied by ForeSee Results (see story here). The Ann Arbor, Mich., surveyor uses the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) to rate the public’s likes and dislikes when it comes to electronic interactions with government. GSA has seen FirstGov’s rating, which currently stands at 72 out of 100, improve by a decent five points in just two years. Pizzella hopes that a major revamp of the site, scheduled for late spring, will push the ACSI rating still higher.

Relative to other agencies’ sites, FirstGov is middle of the pack when it comes to pleasing users; the aggregate score for all ranked federal sites is 73.5. Two Social Security Administration sites share the top score of 86 in rankings that ForeSee Results issued in March: One hosts SSA’s online benefits application and the other offers guidance on the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan. Compared to the big industry-run portals — AOL, MSN, Yahoo and the like — FirstGov holds its own. These portals received an aggregate ACSI ranking of 75 on the latest ForeSee commercial e-commerce ranking.

This spring, OCSC will submit a new set of proposed Web site usability practices to OMB. There is a current set of recommendations created by the Interagency Committee on Government Information for OMB. But it’s two years old.

Pizzella says that agencies should expect that some practices will be mandatory while others will be recommendations or, as she likes to say, “need to do versus should do.”

“We are kind of the usability gurus,” she says. The administration has asked the FirstGov team to help agencies figure out how to provide more online services and to keep their sites clean and well run. “We are being given more and more responsibility on this by OMB.”

User Think

If there is one theme that runs through GSA’s Web design philosophy, it’s the importance of understanding the users. “Many sites, including our early ones, were built around the way government people think, not the way citizens would expect to find information,” Pizzella says.

Photo: Gary Landsman
“One of our jobs is to remind the agencies that we’re all in
business for the citizens,” GSA’s M.J. Pizzella says.

To make her point, Pizzella recalls the rude awakening the FirstGov team got during a focus group in 2002. GSA had brought in 15 diverse people, some government employees and some not, to test the site. When asked to navigate the site and find links to the FBI, only one tester succeeded — and she worked for the Justice Department. The problem? The FBI links fed into the site under a hierarchical menu whose top category was Justice, a connection unknown to many citizens. To solve such problems, OCSC added a horizontal A-to-Z browse method to supplement the hierarchical one. Citizens can go directly to the FBI link via the alphabetical listing.

“One of our jobs is to remind the agencies that we’re all in business for the citizens,” Pizzella says. People used to cut the government some slack on its online information and services, she says, but no more. “They want more information quicker, faster.”

While an A-to-Z index is great for people who know the agency they need to contact, it’s of little use to people who want a service or information but don’t know the government entity that offers it. To meet the needs of those people, OCSC provides functions that accommodate two types of information seekers: browsers and searchers.

For browsers, a hierarchy would help people narrow their browsing behavior until they reach the link they need. But the hierarchy should not depend on an understanding of government organizational charts. Pizzella says the best way to organize content for such visitors is by type of user. So OCSC classifies users into four categories: citizens, businesses and nonprofits, federal employees, and government to government.

The site also has a few more specific audience segment labels, including kids, parents, seniors, and military and veterans.

In addition, FirstGov visitors can browse by topic or news.

Beverly Godwin, director of the site’s content, says to make data readily accessible, the same document often requires links under multiple headings. Although that process entails some extra work in determining all the ways people browse for information, Godwin believes it is time well spent. Agencies need to test how visitors to their sites look for information and then “make sure the information is placed where they expect it to be,” she says.

Power Play

OCSC has also beefed up FirstGov’s search facility with the help of technology from Vivisimo of Pittsburgh. First, rather than depend on Google-like searches, OCSC has put intelligence in search results by incorporating information it expects people will be looking for. For example, in the old method, when people searched for “Social Security,” they’d get a link to the Social Security Administration and some related Web sites. Now they receive links to frequently asked questions related to Social Security that the federal hotline staff compiled, links to Web sites recommended by the editors at and links to Social Security forms.

In addition, the new engine clusters results and categorizes them by topic. If a user types in “disability” and opts to view folders by topic, the search would return a list of the following folder names along with the number of items in each: Insurance (19), Social Security Determination (17), Aging and Disability (11), Disability Rights (11), Health (10) and Rehabilitation (8).

Besides categories, users can also view the results by source or agency.

One reason OCSC spends so much time seeking better ways for users to find information is that FirstGov goes beyond providing links to federal government resources and includes links to services and information offered by state and local entities, too. Although this adds greatly to the number of links and complicates the creation of appropriate search processes, Pizzella says other agencies should not shy away from expanding their sites by linking to resources for which they are not responsible. “It’s important to determine if citizens might expect to find certain information on your site,” Pizzella says. If they do, but the information or service is actually at the site of another federal, state or local agency, include a link to it, she says.

Pizzella warns that agencies need to regularly weed out dead links, which will occur if a federal site offers links off its main host. If a site has too many nonworking links, even if they are to other sites, users will consider it out-of-date and untrustworthy.

In the Now

Currency of site information is a fundamental that agencies must focus on, Pizzella says. And being able to post information quickly plays into it. Organizations should try to provide administrative workflows to ensure that procedures are in place for updating content regularly. Technology can help. In the past, it used to take FirstGov administrators one to two days to update content because the material had to go to the site manager, an outside company, for posting. To speed postings, OCSC recently implemented content management software that lets GSA staff members load content themselves.

“The most valuable real estate on our site is the front page above the fold,” Godwin says. “To take full advantage of that, we have to be able to update it in real time, especially for fast-breaking developments like Hurricane Katrina.”

Of course, even the most usable and up-to-date site is entirely useless if its visitors don’t speak English and the site only posts English-language content. Pizzella says that when the 2000 Census revealed that about 28 million people speak Spanish at home, OCSC quickly got to work creating a Spanish-language version of FirstGov. In fact, FirstGov’s earned a 79 ACSI rating, seven points higher than its English language counterpart. “This is definitely something we’re encouraging other government agencies to do,” Pizzella says.

The Housing and Urban Development Department, the Small Business Administration and the National Library of Medicine all provide Spanish-language content. Social Security provides information in 15 different languages.

Although OCSC sees its mission to help other government entities create better-designed sites, it also tries to encourage them to expand the types of transactions users can perform on federal sites. Godwin hopes that more sites will move from being strictly informational to also providing online services.

“Since around 2003, we’ve seen more and more citizen demand for the ability to do things online, not just get information,” Godwin says. She chalks this up to the fact that citizens are becoming increasingly comfortable with commercial Web transactions. Deciding to offer online permit or grant processing admittedly also often requires policy or even legislative changes, but Godwin contends that the more such transactions an agency can offer on its site, the higher the user satisfaction level will be.

On the flip side, it’s also important not to eliminate other communications and information services or transaction processes, Pizzella adds. As expanded, OCSC officials opted against abandoning its information hotline. But the team did tie the telephone service to its Web effort by having the same customer-service people respond to e-mail originating at the site and to hotline queries. “We wanted to make sure that no matter how people reach us, they get the same response,” Pizzella says.

Another advantage of having the same team handle both e-mail and telephone queries is that the process tends to reduce workload peaks and valleys: When incoming telephone calls drop off, administrators can assign more people to handle e-mail and vice versa.

Pizzella also recommends that agencies do careful evaluations of paper brochures before eliminating them because some still have a place in the federal communications chain. “If someone needs first-aid advice, they’re not going to go to the Web to find it,” she points out. And while online Adobe Portable Document Format versions of brochures provide consumers with immediate access and save government printing and mailing costs, many citizens still prefer traditional printed and bound booklets. People with no Web access require them, and Web users may prefer booklets because they’re easier to find in a bookshelf and sometimes easier to read than printed PDFs.

Currently, OCSC is working on an upgrade to FirstGov. GSA has not unveiled all its plans for the new design, but it will offer new features such as podcasts and streaming video.

Godwin and Pizzella are upbeat about the state of government sites, although they admit that many agencies need to work to improve their sites’ usefulness and boost satisfaction ratings. “We’re still in a learning curve,” Pizzella says. “But we’re on an upward trend.”



Additional Reporting by Vanessa Jo Roberts