User Experience Magazine: Volume 5, Issue 4, 2006
Volume 5, Issue 4, 2006
Feature Articles: New Faces for Local E-Government Sites
Press Release: Usability And Accessibility Key To Democracy (October 18, 2006)
The full articles are available online for UPA members.
Websites play an important role in the relationship between government and citizens. In the UK, this has been recognized by central government, which has encouraged the use of websites for better citizen communication and service delivery. Two local councils met the challenge and set their own ambitious goals for ensuring that their online government services are highly accessible and usable. Both Salisbury District Council and the Aberdeenshire Council turned to user-centered design, with dramatic results.
The first Salisbury District Council website opened in 1999. Created and maintained by administrators from council services who updated to their own content, the site simply evolved, with no clear sense of purpose or ownership. Even in 2003, expectations of the website—and our reliance on it both for internal information needs and external communications—were low. But with national e-government initiatives —the UK’s e-government targets required local councils to “carry out 100 percent of council services electronically by the end of 2005—and growing use of the site, it was time for change.
This article describes the process of changing from a council-centered view to a user-centered view. The result was that a month after relaunch, the site leapt from 288th to first (out of 460) in the SiteMorse survey of UK local authority websites
Websites have an important role to play in the relationship between government and citizens, and in the UK this has been recognized by the central government, which has encouraged the use of websites for better citizen communication and service delivery. The Aberdeenshire local council set ambitious goals not only to ensure that government services were provided online, but that they were also highly accessible and usable.
The redesign of the council web site followed a user-centered design program as advocated by ISO 13407 and the UK’s Quality Framework of UK Government Website Design. These included capturing user preferences through card sorting, establishing usability goals and metrics, conducting iterative reviews throughout the design process, and performing usability testing with end users. The initial usability test provided a clear understanding of the main usability barriers on the site, and the iterative site development at the centre of the user-centered design approach was key to identifying and resolving several issues before they became embedded in the final design.
A final test repeated the protocol and allowed comparison of the old and new sites. The results clearly proved the benefits resulting from usability measures taken to develop the new design. Average task completion rates increased to 93 percent overall, exceeding the goal set at the start of the project.
This article examines how legislative and technological impetus have resulted in strong attention to accessibility compliance, and less strong but growing support of user-centered design techniques in the Piemonte region of Italy. Here as elsewhere, the business case must be made evident to encourage public agencies to apply UCD principles to their websites.
For the first time in history, a wide distribution of technology allows citizens to get involved in public governance and participate in institutional life on a very regular basis. Yet websites of public authorities are barely taking advantage of the power of the participatory citizen.
Two factors play a key role in this gap. First, the average citizen is not well informed about how basic democratic institutions function, which dramatically reduces the citizen’s capacity to influence the democratic process. Websites can help reduce the complexity of public institutions and get people to understand the way institutions and public administrations function and behave. Second, access to public services online is increasingly separated from institutional information. While online service sites are popular, the role of the institutional sites is not clear. The authors argue that these sites can and should take on the role of a two-way communications tool on topics of policy and politics, support knowledge sharing on areas covered by the authority, and create maximum transparency on what the public administration actually does.
To better understand the opportunities, challenges, and evolutions that are affecting public institution websites, the authors studied the main sites of 30 public authorities and identified several innovative approaches. A first analysis shows that a lot remains to be improved. Almost all the sites analyzed share three characteristics: (1) policy priorities are not concisely communicated and easy to understand, (2) there is only limited innovation in how regional or municipal institutions present themselves; and (3) there are no tools for active participation.
However, some of the studied sites provide elements of innovation that can be used as models and inspirations. The authors conclude that to improve information access, better communication strategies are needed and to increase participation, better usability is of crucial importance.
Selected public services portals (not covered by this study)
- Austria: www.help.gov.at
- Belgium: www.vlaanderen.be (in Dutch)
- Canada: www.seniorsinfo.ca, www.servicealberta.gov.ab.ca, www.serviceontario.ca
- Denmark: www.danmark.dk (in Danish)
- Finland: www.suomi.fi
- France: www.service-public.fr (in French)
- Ireland: www.oasis.gov.ie
- Italy: www.sistemapiemonte.it
- Netherlands: www.overheid.nl (in Dutch)
- Norway: www.norway.no
- Portugal: www.portaldocidadao.pt
- Singapore: www.ecitizen.gov.sg, my.ecitizen.gov.sg
- South-Korea: www.egov.go.kr (G4C—Government for Citizens)
- Spain: www.060.es (national, in Spanish), www.gencat.cat (Catalonia)
- Sweden: www.sverige.se (in Swedish)
- UK: www.direct.gov.uk
- USA: www.firstgov.gov
Electronic government sounds attractive, with its promise of convenience, reduced costs and enhanced data quality. But horror stories of leakages of personal information from government networks do not engender trust: the very thing required for citizens and business to switch to online channels.
Many governments have enacted information privacy laws with a view to protecting personal information. If government agencies adhere to privacy laws while developing e-Government solutions, then it is likely that their citizenry will increase its reliance on online government resources, safe in the knowledge that serious data protection has been implemented.
Victoria, an Australian state, enacted an Information Privacy Act in 2000. One important function of the Privacy Commissioner provides for audits of the handling of personal information by government agencies. A website audit of 100 public sector agencies was conducted in 2003, with the overall results being fairly disappointing. Inappropriately worded privacy statements and unsecured online transactions were among the issues identified.
A follow up audit was conducted in 2005. The Commissioner was heartened by the overall improvement, partly because this indicated that agencies were responding to the audit findings, but also because they were absorbing the message about building trust. Some were singled out for commendation, having demonstrated a commitment to secure e-Government.
Where there is a history of website publishing being conducted with little regard for IT security measures, then it is likely that inadequate risk assessment has been undertaken. Robust risk assessment will ensure that legal requirements, such as adherence to privacy laws, will be considered as a matter of course.
As governments get increasingly serious about e-Government they must do so without compromising the privacy of citizens. If they cannot get it right with websites, what faith will the public have in major undertakings like identity cards embedded with biometrics?
From a Conversation between Michele Visciola and Jon Armstrong
Michele: The issue of privacy is closely connected to that of credibility. The two things are generally tightly linked in any website and are particularly so in the e-government websites. I believe this might be one of the angles through which the link between privacy and usability can be framed. So it would be interesting, for instance, to understand if the Victoria government has already found and verified (i.e., tested) a way to build the credibility of their e-government approach by clearly documenting that privacy issues have been taken seriously.
Jon replies: The Privacy Commission is an independent regulator of government and uses its audit powers to test compliance with privacy legislation. The audit reports that result are one means of testing e-government approaches.
However, we do not create the e-government agenda: that is the task of units within the Premier’s department. Our role is to ensure that privacy laws are being observed.
Michele: What kind of principles, policies and practices are they following, suggesting, recommending?
Jon replies: The 10 IPPs—Information Privacy Principles—are to be followed. How this is done is a decision to be made by each agency.
Michele: Are they encountering special resistances to applying them?
Jon replies: There is always some resistance to following standards. Failure to follow standards contributes to the growing number of security lapses seen around the world. E-government exponents love the idea of everything being online. However, citizens and the media are outraged when this involves leaks of personal information.
Michele: What kinds of problems do people in Australia see as privacy problems when dealing with personal data online?
Jon replies: A broad question, but one example will suffice. Human error resulted in the names, addresses and phone numbers of competition entrants being published on an organization’s website. While the error was realized and the information then removed, the impact of Google caching was not realized. Consequently, the information continued to be available world-wide. Then additional effort was required to get Google to remove the information. The online search engine dimension is a key risk factor easily overlooked.
Michele: What can be done, or what has been done, by the Victoria government to ensure that their policies are really those that match user expectations?
Jon replies: Privacy Victoria has training officers that visit city and rural areas. Our Enquiries line is always busy. Our Complaints function leads to case studies. Our media liaison people are kept busy too. We also provide written guidance such as website guidelines and guidelines to applying the Information Privacy Principles.
Michele: How does the government communicate privacy policies?
Jon replies: Information Privacy Principle 5 requires government agencies to have written policies for the management of personal information and make them available to anyone who asks. Each government agency takes their own approach. Privacy Victoria’s very existence is also relevant.
Michele: Answers to these questions might help to understand better the important relationships between the privacy policies and the usability of governmental services.
Jon replies: Glad to be of assistance.
Editor's Note by Aaron Marcus, Editor in Chief
by Tema Frank
O'Reilly Media (October 1, 2005)
188 pages ISBN 0596007655