VUW study: online govt needs a plan

New Zealand government Web sites 'need to demonstrate a higher level of expertise in determining what they are about and how they do it,' according to a new study.

New Zealand government Web sites "need to demonstrate a higher level of expertise in determining what they are about and how they do it," according to a new study.

The year-long study rated the Land Transport Safety Authority site - created by the Wellington developer Shift, which also delivered the Tourism Board's 100% Pure New Zealand site - as the best of all government sites, followed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry site, and the Industrial Relations Service site. On the other hand, it found the Youth Affairs and Internal Affairs ministry sites particular lacking.

The 'Democracy online' project, led by Rowena Cullen of Victoria University's School of Communications and Information Management and funded by the Trustees of the National Library, also had harsh words for the former National government's vision statement 'Electronic Government in New Zealand'.

National's vision statement, released last October, "was not backed by any investment or policy guidelines to help government agencies achieve this vision," according to a release summarising the new study's conclusions. "There is a policy vacuum that those in the information professions wait for the new government to fill."

The first part of the study used "independent evaluators" to rate 52 New Zealand government sites on "34 aspects of quality used to assess government web sites in the international literature".

These include how well the user is oriented to the site; how well information is organised and communicated; the services offered; liability, copyright and privacy issues; the quality of links and feedback mechanisms; design; and navigability. An important criterion was the ability of users with lower level web browsers to access the site and all of its contents.

The authors found that while the sites demonstrated a "well-meaning and enthusiastic participation in the new medium of the World Wide Web" some clearly lacked "knowledge of some critical points of Web design and information design".

It found three main problems: Lack of a clear purpose in sites "and a failure to communicate this purpose to users"; a of good meta-data (text in page source code that helps search engines identify relevant content); and a lack of good contacts for feedback and updates. The use of multimedia software such as Shockwave, and coding that cut out older browsers was also felt to be a concern.

Cullen says that if the government is to engage in e-commerce "it needs firm policy guidelines, and standards which are mandatory across all government web sites."

She said 36 of the 45 sites which offered services online were "fully functional", but only five of these sites offered users any guarantee of privacy when they supplied personal details in order to obtain services."

The other part of the study was a survey of 700 users of government sites. It found that although nearly all users approached a government site with a specific purpose in mind, fewer than half were able to fulfill that purpose. Satisfaction rates for most sites were "lacklustre". Sites with a very focused purpose - such as that of the Civil Aviation Authority - rated best.

The 'Democracy online' report is available via:

http://www.scim.vuw.ac.nz/research/govtonline/

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