Page-load speeds, accessibility issues hamper federal website experience, ITIF says

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Many of the federal government’s most popular websites aren’t fast enough, aren’t tailored properly for mobile devices and present accessibility problems for users with disabilities, according to a report released Wednesday by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

The report analyzed just shy of 300 of the government’s most popular websites using four criteria: security, speed, mobile friendliness and accessibility. And 92 percent of those websites failed to perform well in at least one of seven benchmarks taken during the review.

“Despite years of progress in digital government, a striking number of federal websites do not even meet many of the U.S. government’s own requirements, let alone private-sector best practices,” said Alan McQuinn, ITIF research analyst and the report’s lead author, in a statement. “Considering that many constituents rely on federal websites to interact with government, it is incumbent upon the new administration, supported by Congress, to make websites more convenient, accessible, and secure.”

There appear to be consequences: A recent report by Forrester Research also found that more people are using government websites, but satisfaction with them is not necessarily growing.

The ITIF report recommends that the White House launch website-modernization sprints and “mandate that federal websites meet page load speed requirements.” The report also recommends the White House work with Congress to establish a capital fund for agency IT upgrades.

The think tank conducted tests during a two-month period between November and December 2016. Tests were repeated in January 2017 if errors were encountered.

Some progress has been made since then for some websites, the report acknowledges.

“During that time, various agencies updated their websites,” the report notes. “For example, fitness.gov has since updated its website to a version that scores significantly better for both desktop and mobile page load speed.”

Speed matters

The report’s authors assessed the speed of each website’s homepage on desktop and mobile via a Google tool. In the report fitness.gov was scored a mere 4 out of 100 for desktop page speed and a 1 out of 100 for mobile page speed.

Most agencies —78 percent — passed the speed test for desktop, but a majority failed the speed test for mobile.

“Only 36 percent of the reviewed websites passed the speed test for mobile devices,” the report says. “Websites often failed this test because they failed to implement common optimization techniques, such as compressing images and prioritizing loading the part of the website visible without scrolling first.”

Certain websites ranked in the 100,000 most popular websites globally failed load speed tests for both mobile and desktop, according to the report, including the General Services Administration’s gsa.gov, IdentityTheft.gov and the National Cancer Institute’s website cancer.gov.

“Despite having a goal of improving convenience for users of digital services, federal agencies are not delivering fast websites,” the report says.

Mobile weaknesses

Assessments for mobile-friendliness had mixed results, according to the report. A majority of tested sites — 59 percent — scored high enough to pass. Websites had to score at least a 90 out of 100 to pass.

But the report notes: “The distribution of the data shows a significant dichotomy between passing and failing websites. Most websites either passed the test with a score of 90 or above or failed the test with a score below 70, with few scoring in the middle. Indeed, 31 percent of the reviewed websites failed the test with a score between 60 and 70.”

And only 58 percent of the websites reviewed were deemed accessible for users with disabilities.

“Issues with accessibility ranged from poor contrast on websites to a lack of labels, which may prevent the website from being easily navigated by someone using a screen reader, assistive technology commonly used by individuals who are blind,” the report says.

But on a positive note, the report says the websites generally scored high on security. For security, ITIF tested websites for two features: Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS), and Domain Name System Security (DNSSEC).

The report says: “To test for HTTPS, we used a tool that analyzed websites’ Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificates (which underpin most HTTPS connections). Two-thirds of the reviewed websites passed the SSL test. To test for DNSSEC, we used a tool to determine whether reviewed websites enabled this security feature. We found that 90 percent of federal websites enabled DNSSEC, and 61 percent of websites passed both the SSL and DNSSEC tests.”

A recent 18F blog post said that now 75 percent of parent .gov domains support HTTPS.

Each of the four main categories were averaged together to give each website an overall score. The top performing sites overall were:

  1. healthdata.gov
  2. healthfinder.gov
  3. consumerfinance.gov
  4. whitehouse.gov (Trump administration)
  5. usembassy.gov

And the worst-performing sites overall were:

  1. usphs.gov
  2. fmc.gov
  3. osti.gov
  4. trade.gov
  5. ipcc-wg2.gov

The report’s authors looked at the whitehouse.gov page during both the Trump administration, and the Obama administration. The Obama administration version ranked 55th, while Trump’s came in at No. 4.

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accessibility, HTTPS, ITIF, mobile, Obama administration, Trump administration, website, White House, WhiteHouse.gov
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