Show of hands: Who thinks the best site on the Web is maintained by the federal government?
By one measure, a well-established gauge of user satisfaction, the government actually beats out many of the top business sites on the Web, including perennial consumer favorites Amazon, Expedia and Google.
"Government leaders are doing a good job in the digital channel," says Dave Lewan, vice president at the research firm ForeSee and the author of a new report measuring customer satisfaction with federal websites. "This is one area that should be highlighted. And the effort that's been put in, it's paying off, but expectations are only getting higher."
ForeSee evaluates websites on a 100-point customer-satisfaction scale, looking at a variety of factors like search, functionality and ease of navigation. The firm also focuses on outcomes, such as the likelihood that users would return to the site or recommend it to others.
On that scale, 36 percent of the 101 websites ForeSee evaluated in the fourth quarter of 2015 notched scores of 80 or above, what the firm deems as the threshold where websites are "meeting or exceeding the standards of excellence for highly satisfied visitors." That mark was up from 30 percent in the first quarter of the year.
Leading the pack were four websites maintained by the Social Security Administration. Two SSA sites scored 90 on ForeSee's satisfaction index, and two others scored 89.
For comparison, Amazon netted an 86 on the same index. Vanguard.com came in at 80, followed by Google (78), Pinterest (78), Expedia (77) and NYTimes.com (76).
Consumers have high expectations for Internet functionality
But wouldn't visitors to a site like Amazon, long hailed for its topline user experience, likely have a higher set of expectations than they would when they point their browser to a federal site?
Not likely, says Lewan..
"If you think about it, we do so much online now that we do have expectations. We have expectations on how search should work. I have expectations for how I should be able to navigate a site," he says.
"Citizens have the same expectations when they go to a government website as when they go to a Google or Amazon," he adds. "The federal website managers, agency leaders, they don't get a break."
ForeSee traces the improvement of e-government services back the Clinton administration, at the dawn of the commercial Internet. In the time since, there have been numerous acts of Congress, executive orders, OMB memos and agency initiatives aimed at improving the government's digital properties.
One helpful trend has been the increasing tendency for agency leaders to recruit top tech talent from the private sector, helping introduce the government to some of the best practices for user experience that have taken shape in the business world.
"Having that cheerleader that champion internally -- it's huge," Lewan says.
In many cases, the mission for an agency's tech team is to undo the legacy work of their predecessors, who would often build a website with little regard for the user experience, instead modeling the site's navigation on the government's counter-intuitive internal organizing structure.
"One of the things about government sites, often times they are built from the government's point of view -- this is the way we're organized, citizen, you figure it out," Lewan says.
In aggregate, the federal websites that ForeSee evaluated scored 75.1, 5.1 points higher than the first quarterly index the firm issued in 2002.
In the time since, consumers have demonstrated a clear preference for interacting with the government via the Web or, more recently, new channels like mobile apps. That's a win-win for the federal agencies that develop compelling websites that engender loyalty and trust, and keep citizens from going to more costly channels like a call center.
"Most citizens want to get their data through the digital channel," Lewan says. "So delivering a great digital experience is just optimal for really both citizens and government."