July 2005

Assessing citizen centricity of government websites

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As the Internet is gradually transforming the social and economic fabric of our communities,   Government agencies worldwide are evolving into ‘e-governments’ to enable a better and broader access to government services. Web Portals having the ability to integrate disparate infrastructure and applications have emerged as the logical front end for government initiatives to deliver a wide variety of information and services to its citizens. A large number of government websites have been set up all across the world over the last few years. However, their effectiveness depends on what they have to offer in terms of information, interaction and   transaction. Since a majority of target audience of a government website are the common citizens with varied educational, cultural and demographic backgrounds, the development framework for these websites has to be designed to ensure citizen centricity, usefulness, effectiveness and efficiency in access.

Evaluation studies carried out from time to time by researchers worldwide have revealed a  number of strengths and weaknesses of the government websites. A study carried out by Kristin R. Eschenfelder on the US government websites emphasised that “to enhance the overall usefulness and impact of federal websites, careful consideration should be given to  their purpose, structure, operation and federal information policies (particularly as they  relate to information dissemination) should be re-examined”. Another study by a research  team at Brown University in North America led by Darell M West revealed a large number of  shortcomings in government websites, especially on privacy issues and those relating to  universal accessibility. An assessment of New Zealand Government’s websites by a team from  Victoria University led by Rowena Cullen highlights the main problems with the Government  websites are lack of clear purpose, lack of good metadata and lack of adequate  feedback and contact information. These findings also suggest the requirement for the sites to  be made such that they can also be used by physically challenged or disabled people.

Citizen centric websites

Studies and surveys conducted to gauge the public expectations and response to a typical government website indicate the top two priorities in the visitors’ minds are:

1. To be able to access the website fast and conveniently
2. To get useful, authentic and up-to-date information and services

To achieve the first, it has to be made sure that the website is fully accessible across a broad  range of technologies, platforms and audiences, including citizens with varied physical  challenges. The second objective can be achieved by adopting a citizen-focussed approach  right from conceptualisation to design and development of the website. User Centric Design  and Usability Principles/Guidelines/ Best Practices can be applied during the development of  the websites, such that the entended objectives can be achieved.

Citizen centricity assessment

Though available research on the subject reveals a few instances of efforts made by    organisations/individuals to judge the effectiveness of websites, per se, the area of defining  assessment criteria specifically suited for government websites is relatively less explored. Based on the findings of some of the research carried out in this area and applying the  principles of User Interface Design and Accessibility, it is felt that citizen centricity of the websites can be assessed around five broad categories namely accessibility, navigation architecture, content, design and layout and credibility.

Accessibility

Accessibility refers to the extent to which the website and its contents are available to a wide range of users with varied levels of physical capabilities/skills and technologies. The World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is an internationally agreed recommendation for website accessibility for people with special needs and it is expected of the  Government websites to follow these standards. The government websites under evaluation  may be studied and tested to check how easy/difficult it is for the common citizens (even those

Since a majority of target audience of a government website are the common citizens with varied educational, cultural and demographic backgrounds, the   development framework for these websites has to be citizen centric, useful, effective and efficient.

with physical disabilities) to search and access them, and whether the portals appear and  function correctly on the commonly available browsers. The presence of metadata  information, which is vital to ensure a good visibility of the site in major search engines is also  to be adequately tested. The response/ download speed of the sites is another important  criteria for testing the accessibility and checking how much time it takes for a common citizen  with a relatively slow Internet Connectivity to access the information given on a  government website.

Government websites should also have a section on related links to facilitate access to websites of parent ministry/department and other associated organisations.”

Navigation architecture

Navigation architecture includes all those features which make it convenient/ inconvenient  for a user to browse the contents on the website. The navigation architecture should be such  that users spend minimal effort/clicks in locating and using the desired information and  services online. During evaluation, it may be tested whether links to all the information  important from citizens’ point of view are preferably provided on the Home Page itself. The  language articulation of the link titles also plays an important role in guiding the user to  reach at the right content and hence, due emphasis should be accorded to well formulated and  self explanatory link titles. Government websites should also have a section on related links to facilitate access to websites of parent ministry/department and other associated  organisations. The website may also be reviewed to check whether it is possible to search  through the contents of the complete site from a single point and also to check if any online help/guidance is provided to guide the visitors through the key sections. Another assessment parameter in this category is whether the website provides the facility to the visitors to  personalise/customise the web pages as per their own preferences.

Content

The content in a government website site has to be defined in a manner that a common citizen  understands. Apart from quality of the content, equal emphasis need to be given to the  way it is written and presented. The content on the government sites may also be  reviewed for some of the important features desired by citizens, namely – online services,  opportunity for interaction and participation and a facility for submitting and tracking  grievances. Another important pre-requisite for an effective government website is the  availability of comprehensive contact information (email, postal address, telephone and fax  numbers), which may be used by a citizen to approach the Government functionaries.

Design and layout

Government websites should have simple and citizen friendly design and layout so that people find it comfortable and convenient to access the desired information. The color scheme and positioning of design elements should allow legibility and easy reading. It may be studied whether the site in question maintains its identity upto the last level pages.

Credibility

Credibility in this context refers to the extent of trust, which a citizen can impose on the government website with respect to security and legal requirements. Government websites must raise citizens’ confidence by abiding with the law and explaining their terms and conditions clearly to the users. The issue assumes more importance when it comes to online transactions as well as making payments through the website. Well worded disclaimers, privacy policies, terms and conditions and copyright information enhance the credibility of the website and help in further building the users’ trust.

Another equally important aspect related to credibility is the site address or the URL. As per the international naming conventions, each country has reserved certain domain(s) for government websites (e.g ‘gov.sg’ (Singapore),‘gov.in’ (India) and such domains are not freely available for registration by anyone as they are allocated to a government department
only after due verification. The websites under evaluation could therefore be tested on such reliability aspects including presence of ownership information, proper privacy policies and legal information. The sites may also be tested for the presence of any broken/ dead links which can significantly damage the credibility of the website.

Assessment techniques

A variety of qualitative and quantitative assessment techniques can be appropriately deployed to assess the websites on the basis of Assessment metrics (see the table).

• Lab testing:
Lab testing involves inviting a select group of users in the Lab set-up and   making them access and navigate the various sections of the website. Structured testing is then carried out on the way different users browse through the site and use its various online features. The users may also be interviewed about the site functionality, design, ease of use etc. This method, though providing for a detailed and specific feedback, can be applied only to a limited number of users due to relatively high cost implications and time consumption.
• Online user surveys: This involves the website visitors responding to questions posed through pop-up surveys which appear whenever the website is accessed. The questionnaire should preferably be multiple-choice based with the number of questions not exceeding   twenty and the respondents being required to check the relevant option and fill in some personal details. This technique allows the website managers to survey a large number of users in a relatively short span of time. However, it has been observed that the response rate amongst first time visitors to the sites is not high, thus leading to the possibility that the survey is mostly answered by frequent visitors which may allow for biases to crop in.
• Interviewing focus groups: This would involve selecting a focused group of target users and a moderator asking them a prepared set of questions about the usability and citizen orientation of the website. The group could also be asked to perform certain test exercises such as availing a specific citizen services online or downloading an application form from the website. Such interviews could be  carried out either face-to-face or in the form of ‘virtual’ group discussions.
• Syndicated surveys: This method involves getting access to the results of third party surveys carried out on the users to monitor the performance and functionality of the websites on a general basis. Though such survey results have high statistical validity, they may be too general for a government to extract evaluation results and data pertaining to the aspect of citizen centricity.
• Informal user feedback: This involves analysis of visitors through guest books, e-mail   forms, helpdesk, phonelines etc. Such a feedback can help the government departments to eradicate snags and errors in the site and also to formulate questions and exercises for formal user surveys.
• Usage data analysis: This kind of evaluation technique involves the analysis of the web log data collected through specialised software installed on the web servers. Quantitative data like page views, number of hits, unique visitors etc can be obtained through this method, which allows a government department to track overall usage trends over time. However, the  technique is prone to errors as the software measures the usage by tracking the IP   addresses of the computers being used and not of the users themselves. Besides the above method, the technique of Internet Audience Measurement could also be applied whereby usage data is collected from a large panel of web users who agree to have their web surfing monitored constantly and the pertaining data keeps getting collected on their individual computers from where it is picked up later and aggregated.
• Web performance data: The technique here involves measuring the site’s performance on technical aspects like the download time, speed of data transfer, number of broken links, accessibility for the disabled etc. There are various specialised tools, testing software and free websites which facilitate an online evaluation of a website on such aspects.
• Heuristic analysis: Finally, an important method of qualitatively assessing a government website is through heuristic analysis or an expert review. In this approach, a panel of experts reviews the website and evaluates it against a set of parameters such as those defined in the above assessment metrics and assess the effectiveness of the site.

Conclusion

To move government websites to a higher level of evolution, it is important to shift the focus  away from a Government’s perception of itself to the citizen’s perception of the Government. It  is recommended that a well-defined web evaluation strategy be crafted to monitor the  performance and citizen centricity of Government websites on a regular basis. Assessment  guidelines and parameters, such as, the metrics developed as a part of this study can prove  useful to web developers both at the planning stage of a new website as well as to improve the  citizen centricity of existing websites. The metrics could be further enhanced by assigning weightage to various parameters in order of priority, so that websites may be evaluated as  objectively as possible. Specialised software tools could also be developed to facilitate the  evaluation process and improve the accuracy of results.

Assessment metrics

1. Accessibility

1.1 Accessibility for people with special needs
1.2 Visibility in search engines
1.3 Response time
1.4 Compatibility with mainstream browsers

2. Navigation Architecture

2.1 Minimal effort/clicks
2.2 Consistency
2.3 Self explanatory links
2.4 Related links section
2.5 On-site search facility
2.6 On-line help
2.7 Personalisation/Customisation

3. Content

3.1 Citizen orientation
3.2 Clarity, accuracy and currency
3.3 Content in regional language
3.4 Content formats
3.5 Opportunity for interaction with the govt.
3.6 Citizen services – online
3.7 Grievances – lodging and status tracking
3.8 Phone/email directory

4. Design-Layout

4.1 Identity
4.2 Consistent layout
4.3 Legibility
4.4 Headers on pages opening in new window
4.5 Content prioritisation and positioning
5. Credibility
5.1 Ownership information
5.2 Legal information
5.3 Privacy policy
5.4 Broken/dead links
5.5 Domain name (URL)

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