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Obama's e-Gov Vision Off to Slow Start

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President Obama came into office promising a new era of transparency where government data would be readily accessible to the public on the Internet, but a new study suggests that Americans have actually soured on government Web sites since the administration set up shop.

The University of Michigan maintains a scoring system called the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), a benchmark it uses to measure the quality of more than 200 programs and service throughout the public and private sectors.

This quarter, government Web sites, which have long lagged behind their commercial counterparts, posted a half-point decline from last quarter's all-time high, checking in at 73.6 on a 100-point scale. That mark is the first decline in the category in a year.

The authors of the study suggested several factors to explain the seeming discord between Obama's vision for e-government and the ACSI results.

Part of the trouble could stem from the turmoil associated with the new administration settling in. Satisfaction with Web sites representing a specific government program, rather than an entire agency or department, declined at a steeper rate than all government sites. Program sites are likely to go neglected in the early months of an administration as it scrambles to put its big-picture vision in place, they said.

The authors also said that the e-gov ACSI score could be weighed down by the lofty expectations Obama has set for how his administration will use the Internet.

After running a highly successful online campaign, Obama sought to bring that same momentum into the White House. His early initiatives have included a revamping of the WhiteHouse.gov site, creating the Recovery.gov site to keep track of the government spending associated with the economic recovery efforts, and making his weekly address to the nation available as an online video.

The administration yesterday opened a week-long drive calling for ideas about IT tools that could make Recovery.gov more effective at tracking the dispersal of stimulus funds. People are invited to submit suggestions at TheNationalDialogue.org.

But making over the sprawling array of government Web sites, 107 of which were evaluated in the ACSI study, is a much taller order than running a slick and content-rich site representing the president.

"Hopes are high for the future of e-government, with a tech-savvy president at the helm, but change is slow and expectations are sky high," the authors wrote.

Two Web sites administered by the Social Security Administration tied for the top spot in the ACSI scoring, which evaluates sites based on factors such as navigability, search and the quality of content.

"In many ways, government websites have it a lot tougher than private sector sites because they have to organize varied, complex, and extensive information," Claes Fornell, the Michigan researcher who oversees the university's ACSI studies, said in a statement. "Also, government websites often have more first-time or infrequent users, making it more difficult to create a good user experience."

But Obama has made a few promising moves toward making e-government a reality, the authors noted. He has created the positions of federal CTO and CIO, to be filled by Aneesh Chopra and Vivek Kundra, respectively.

As CTO, Chopra will focus on technology policy across the federal government, while Kundra will direct the agencies' IT strategies and spending on a more granular level. The administration has said that that the two men will work closely together, along with Jeffrey Zients, whom Obama tapped to serve as the nation's first chief performance officer, a position created to hold the various agencies accountable and police for signs of government waste.

Nevertheless, the authors noted that the federal bureaucracy is a slow ship to turn.

"As a candidate, Obama made his campaign accessible to voters, and as president he hopes to do the same for government," said Larry Freed, president and CEO ForeSee Results, the research firm that partnered with the University of Michigan for the study. "Change may have come to Washington, but it’s not going to happen overnight."