North Carolina’s legislature moved last week to make local government websites even more important to state residents by advancing a bill that would allow local governments to post public legal notices, such as foreclosures, on their own websites instead of in newspapers. While this legislation is not quite the cost-saving measure its proponents describe it as — local governments would be able to charge the same fees newspapers charge today — the proposal does reflect a broader trend of the public increasingly relying on government websites to access important information.
People’s primary interactions with government increasingly occur online, so it is essential that government websites perform optimally. They should not just be secure, but also fast, mobile friendly and accessible for people with disabilities. Unfortunately, many government websites fail to meet these basic standards or follow industry best practices.
The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) recently published a study that found of nearly 300 of the most popular federal government websites, approximately 92 percent failed to meet basic standards for security, speed, mobile friendliness or accessibility.
Although the study did not examine state and local websites, anecdotal evidence suggests these problems are by no means limited to the federal government. For example, the official website of North Carolina’s state government has not implemented Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC), which Microsoft’s TechNet describes as a “suite of extensions that add security to the Domain Name System (DNS) protocol by enabling DNS responses to be validated.” These extensions are a key security feature designed to help prevent attackers from hijacking users’ internet sessions to send them to malicious sites.
State and local websites are not doomed to poor performance.
There are many common problems that all government agencies can address to improve their online presence. The common thread is that improving websites is about governance, not just technology.
Often government agencies have practices that deviate from their stated policies, such as directing that websites adhere to certain security requirements but then not enforcing those requirements.
At a time when state and local budgets are under extreme pressure, the task of improving government websites can too easily be pushed to the back burner because addressing problems with existing systems is less flashy than building new services.
One way to improve accountability and create incentives for change is to create real-time public dashboards of website performance. By ensuring this information is available to everyone, states can show where gaps exist and create the political will to fix them.
Users’ expectations are set by their experiences with commercial websites. This does not mean that a relatively small agency like the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources needs to have a website on par with Google. But basic practices, such as optimizing web pages for mobile and desktop users as well as following industry standards on accessibility, can vastly improve the user experience.
Private-sector giants have poured enormous resources into figuring out how to create the best websites for their users. State and local governments should be learning from these efforts. And in some areas, such as security and accessibility, government should be leading the way.
The California Tax Service Center’s website, for example, looks almost the same today as it did in 2007 — the year the iPhone was introduced. Retiring old websites and building new ones can be a hassle, but trying to patch aging sites indefinitely only complicates the lives of government workers and citizens alike.
When a government agency creates a website, it should plan at the outset for a date when the website will be retired, refreshed or renewed, and stick to that commitment.
State and local governments are the laboratories of democracy, but good laboratories need good technology.
By creating standards and accountability, adopting best practices, and ensuring sites remain modern, state and local governments can use online services to improve government.
Efforts, like those in North Carolina and other states, to move more official business online should be applauded. However, for state and local e-government initiatives to reach their potential, those websites will have to meet the expectations of digital citizens.