Users accessing online government services demand ‘citizen-centric’ Web sites that provide quick and easy access to information and services. Unfortunately, it seems all levels of government across Australia have not yet fully met this demand because standards for their customer-focused portals are still lagging. We have recently completed a study that confirmed this. It revealed changes are needed to government portals or users will continue to be confused and even alienated.
It showed users overall had a poor understanding of government, which doesn’t really come as a surprise. However, a citizen-centric portal is not about understanding the intricacies of government. It is about allowing users to seamlessly get the information that they need, whether it means using cross-agency portals from the same level of government, or using multiple tiers of government (such as local, state and federal).
Back in December 2000, [Information Technology Minister] Senator Richard Alston announced new measures to boost government online while stating at that time, “the whole-of-government portals framework will provide a customer-focused, coordinated approach to the federal government’s online presence. The framework will bring together information and services from across government to a set of portals based on user-relevant themes or user groups rather than bureaucratic demarcation.”
Nearly three years later, was he right? Not quite. Our research monitored people who varied in age, gender and Internet experience. They were required to visit a range of government Web sites and carry out everyday, online activities including paying local council rates; renewing their vehicle registration; buying an eTag; checking eligibility for a healthcare card, and finding immunisation information for a newborn baby. Participants accessed single levels of government Web sites (such as www.fed.gov.au and www.vic.gov.au) and multiple levels of government (like Service Tasmania and Service South Australia) Web sites. Our recommendations from the study were to categorise information intuitively, not by the structure of government; create an experience where users feel like they are within a single integrated government site; cross-link to relevant information across government; and have a consistent look and feel across government sites.
As one study participant said, “If sites are clumsy, they are representative of the problems we’ve had in the past. An inability to access government means a distance between government and the people. That’s not what we want.” It’s not quite citizen-centric yet!
Susan Wolfe is managing director, The Hiser Group