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E-Government Sites Are Attracting A Following

A new survey of selected government Web sites shows they're creating loyalty among users.
Building brand loyalty is vital to the success of any business--online or off. A survey released Monday of selected federal E-government Web sites shows that they've been successful in creating a loyal following among the citizenry.

Citizens using online government services are highly likely to return to the sites they use and to recommend them to others, according to an analysis of findings from the E-government version of the American Customer Satisfaction Index, produced through a partnership among the University of Michigan Business School, American Society for Quality, and consultant CFI Group. "We see mixed results in terms of how successful agencies are, but one common theme--channel loyalty that is generally quite strong," says Larry Freed, CEO of ForeSee Results, an online customer-satisfaction management firm that developed the index. "This loyalty factor will fuel the growth of E-government."

The Web site medlineplus.gov --run by the National Library of Medicine, a unit of Department of Health and Human Services, received the highest satisfaction score of 85%. Its Spanish-language site, medlineplus.gov/esp , ranked second at 84%. The only other site to top 80% was www.4woman.gov , the main Web site of the National Women's Health Information Center Website, also part of HHS, which scored 81%.

Three sites received satisfaction scores of 79%: catalog.usmint.gov , the online catalog for the U.S. Mint, and the recruitment sites for the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department .

The site receiving the lowest satisfaction score, 48%, was the National Ocean Service map-finder site.

Over the past nine months, the rating for consumer satisfaction among federal agencies rose 5.4%. That eclipses the rate of improvement in the satisfaction score for the American economy overall, which rose a mere 0.8% during that period. E-government satisfaction even surpassed commercial E-business satisfaction, which increased 3.9%.

Online satisfaction is about understanding what people want a site to do, and then doing it. "Government is increasingly sophisticated about this, and satisfaction produces channel loyalty," Freed says. "The high return and recommend numbers mean this is a make or break opportunity for E-government to become a preferred channel and grow--or fail to stay ahead of expectations and whither."

The study's authors say the biggest improvements paint a picture of success via citizen-centricity, and include highly focused sites and those with broad audiences. Two surveyed sites, future.state.gov, the Department of State's student site and the Federal Aviation Administration's main site improved the most--eight points and six points respectively over a nine-month period.

Broader-audience sites in the personnel recruitment area also registered big gains, indicating that narrow segmentation is not the only way to succeed. USAJobs.com, the government's main recruiting site run by the Office of Personnel Management, improved by five points. USAJobs' score has shown steady improvement in each of the past three quarters, and this quarter hit a respectable 76, partly via user-driven innovations that go beyond even the private sector. The Department of State's careers site jumped six points.

"Agencies have turned a corner in terms of the sophistication with which they deliver online services," says Anne Kelly, CEO of the Federal Consulting Group, a Treasury Department unit charged with helping government agencies develop an entrepreneurship approach to dealing with its constituencies. "They are understanding citizen needs and expectations and focusing resources accordingly. Increasingly, people get what they want from E-government and prefer the channel."

The partners calculated the rate of improvement by looking at progress of 20 sites that joined the index when it began in the fourth quarter 2003. Since then, 33 more sites have opted into the index.

Likelihood to recommend--which the study's authors say is a good indicator of the degree to which more people will turn to E-government instead of traditional channels--is particularly high among transaction and news/information sites. "This is great news for government agencies, because the online channel delivers convenience and saves taxpayer dollars," Freed says.

To keep and build loyalty, agencies must do more online. "Failure to deliver," Freed says, "will deflate the gains E-government has been making."

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