In December, the White House signed the Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government. This is an excellent challenge to the federal government community to improve customer experience (CX). This aligns closely with the administration’s diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility initiatives. Agencies identified as High-Impact Service Providers (HISPs) have already needed to detail their improvement plans.
Formalizing and distributing knowledge about CX is critical. The government is already sharing many useful resources to achieve this goal. However, there are a few elements of digital government that seem to have been overlooked. There are some basics needed as a foundation to rebuild trust. This article will highlight a few opportunities to make big strides and improve federal government CX through better data tracking, measurement and management.
Having metrics for CX is fundamental, but it will also help establish a benchmark for future advancement. Whenever possible, these issues should be addressed centrally. Having a uniform process will help achieve greater accountability and efficiency.
Faster load times equal higher trust
Google’s Lighthouse is the most common tool to evaluate website performance. Lighthouse is an open source tool that can evaluate performance, best practices, search engine optimization (SEO) and accessibility. CivicActions scanned nearly 4,000 web pages from some of the most popular .gov sites. We found that the average Lighthouse performance score was just 56%. It was interesting to see the range of page load time within the same site.
As an example, the White House home page is calculated as having a Lighthouse performance score of 63%. In this case Lighthouse estimates that the time until the page becomes interactive is 7.3 seconds. We know this isn’t acceptable. Increasingly users are just leaving a site if it takes this long to load.
There is much room for improvement.
There are many great examples from the private sector about the importance of page speed. It is safe to assume that these principles can be applied to public sites.
Here is some guidance from the 2013 Digital.gov Digital Metrics for Federal Agencies:
“Speed is even more important than relevance in terms of whether people engage or abandon search. If pages take a long time to load, search engines won’t crawl them, and users will abandon your site.”
In mobile and desktop, it is a best practice for a page to load in under five seconds. Google Lighthouse can help identify which pages need the most help. There are lots of resources available to guide developers on how to improve performance.
The government often doesn’t think about SEO, unlike the private sector. Good SEO can be an important piece of customer satisfaction. Whether visitors reach your site through the home page or Google, it’s important that they can find the information they’re seeking.
For two decades, people have learned to expect that Google will provide better search results than a built-in site search. It is still important to build a robust internal search. Internal search tools can also be built to provide direct answers to user queries. Sites should plan for both internal and external search engine usage.
Search engines are increasingly tailored to common user searches. Users are growing accustomed to finding information directly in third party services like Siri or Alexa. Often users can find their answers without ever having to visit government sites. Site owners should incorporate these considerations to streamline the customer experience.
Meet your users where they are.
Again, Google Lighthouse can help highlight where government content can be consumed by search engines. Google Lighthouse improvements will also support indexing from other search engines.
Accessibility is key to experience
2022 will mark the 32nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Unfortunately, many government websites still do not meet Section 508 requirements. There are open source tools that can quickly and accurately find accessibility errors. Using these it is easy to find government web pages which do not comply with Section 508.
The most popular accessibility engine is Deque’s axe-core. This is used in Google Lighthouse, Microsoft’s Accessibility Insights and many others. Axe-core is designed to avoid false-positive accessibility errors. False positives are incorrectly reported errors that are generated by automated accessibility tools.
Government-wide accessibility scanning can be done with open source software. Accessibility errors can be identified by automated tools and then fixed. Most digital accessibility barriers still require manual testing. Consistent and disciplined use of frameworks like the U.S. Web Design System (USWDS) helps the customer experience. Often the most complicated accessibility issues will be tackled through the design system.
Scans with the latest axe-core will likely get the most accurate results. Developers can also get much the same information from Google Lighthouse.
Accessibility is integral to an optimal customer experience. Everyone is increasingly reliant on digital tools. Permanent, temporary and situational disabilities play a role in shaping our experience.
When possible, be plain
Content is a significant part of customer experience. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 was intended to ensure that content on government sites is easily readable and understandable. Unfortunately, this still does not seem to be the case for most government sites.
Automated readability scores can measure roughly how easy it is to read a web page. Text can be easily scored with the Flesch–Kincaid readability test. This can be included when crawling a site as a standard measure of quality. Unfortunately, automated tests cannot ensure that content is well written and makes sense.
Most government sites are written for public consumption. Websites should avoid jargon whenever possible. It is possible to track “government” words and be systematic about building and maintaining glossaries. Site scans can look for acronyms and highlight unusual or long words. This list should be reviewed to check for conflicting definitions or other changes. Users can also be encouraged to submit words that they see as jargon to an agency through a feedback form.
Automated testing alone will never be able to fully gauge readability — that will need human intervention. When managing millions of pages of content, a scalable approach is needed. A robust style guide and training for content creators is necessary but insufficient.
Readability can be tracked so that it is possible to see progress over time.
Find the missing links
Government sites are often filled with broken links. This isn’t a new issue, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an important thing to monitor if we want to restore trust in digital government. There are many ways that the private sector addresses this issue that can be applied to the government.
Scanning sites for accessibility and performance is one way to catch broken links. There is a range of tools which can track the health of inbound and outbound links. Sites which use a modern content management systems (CMS) like Drupal can be proactive in catching broken links.
Link monitoring should be automated as much as possible. Redirects need to be maintained, and links between government sites need to be given priority. Visitors expect that if they follow links between government sites that they should work, and they should.
This can also be tracked and included as part of a public dashboard.
Freshen up the content
People trust sites where they find value. If content is out-of-date or no longer relevant, they will lose faith.
With many sites, it is possible to easily identify older content. This may be because the content in the URL hasn’t changed, or because it has an old date. There are many ways to do this with .gov sites. To help manage old content it is possible to start measuring the last time a page was reviewed for relevance. This workflow is easy to set up within a CMS like Drupal.
Design trends and user expectations change over time. Outdated content contributes to a negative experience. Leveraging today’s tools, it is possible to track, identify and resolve stale content as part of an effective CX strategy.
This is just a starting point
The real work of rebuilding trust in government will take more than a dashboard. That said, if any of these metrics start trending in the wrong direction, it is hard to see how the goals of the CX EO will be met.
There are other CX data collection and metrics requirements for HISP agencies. These should supplement the basics outlined here.
The Federal Government successfully built and maintains analytics.usa.gov. This site allows anyone to see user traffic for popular .gov sites. This should be expanded to provide much more than just analytics. This data should be open so that agencies can be held accountable for improvements in customer experience.
Mike Gifford is Senior Strategist at CivicActions and a Drupal Core Accessibility Maintainer. Previously, he was CEO of OpenConcept Consulting Inc. and Co-founder of CivicTech Ottawa.
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