Why government websites often struggle to meet people’s needs


“Why are so many government websites difficult to use? This is a question constantly asked by policy makers, government employees and the public.

From the healthcare.gov launch debacle in 2013 to the more recent failures of numerous unemployment benefits websites, it’s not hard to find examples.

And it’s not just websites. All kinds of government technology projects have challenges. A report found that only 13% of large government software projects are successfully completed on time, on budget and on target.

In our decade of working with governments to provide essential services to people that not only met their needs, but also treated them with respect and dignity, we have found that there are three common factors that tend to complicate these projects:

  1. “Clumsy” approaches and practices: Project scopes that are too large and rigid, with too many up-front specifications and not enough iterative development.
  2. Failing to focus on people-centric technology practices like user research, design, and product management.
  3. Insufficient technical capacity and expertise.

To be fair, these challenges are not unique to government. They are also common in the private and non-profit sectors. There are also many cases of well-functioning government websites that power simple, accessible and easy-to-use services. Yet addressing these key issues can make all the difference in delivering better public services. Let’s find out how:

1. “Clumsy” approaches and practices

Governments need many goods and services to function, from bridges to fire trucks to pencils. Traditional budgeting and procurement treats digital technology as if it were a big physical item by requiring:

  • A long timeline for planning, budgeting, procurement and delivery – often measured in years.
  • A precise understanding how people will use it before it’s bought or built.
  • Long and detailed requirement lists specified at the beginning of the process.
  • A clear definition when something is “done”.

This approach does not work well for software. As our friends at 18F have said, “Technology changes, government policies change, regulations change, laws change and management priorities change – any project planned in detail in advance will not be able to adapt to these changes and will be exposed to a significant risk of failure, significant cost and schedule overruns, or costly “change orders.”

Instead, think of software as a service that is constantly being improved rather than a big, once-bought item. “Fund product teams, not projects.” If the work is outsourced, break it up into smaller “modular” contracts.

2. Failing to focus on people-centric technology practices

Often, government digital tools technically do what they’re supposed to do, but in a way that doesn’t work well for the people using them. A big culprit can be poor user research, design, or product management. Governments may not employ people with these skills, or if they do, there may not be enough of them. Meanwhile, vendor contracts used to purchase technology may not include these practices in their scope.

Each of these practices plays an important role in delivering efficient and easy-to-use digital services:

  • User search is the process of learning about “people’s needs, behaviors, experiences, and motivations through various qualitative and quantitative methods to inform the problem-solving process.” [their] problems.”
  • Design covers several aspects, including user experience (UX), user interface (UI), content strategy and service delivery. Designers are key to combining product goals with user input to create systems and technology that work well for the people who need to use them.
  • Product management is the practice of strategically directing a product throughout its life cycle. Product managers “prioritize, communicate and align stakeholders and teams around: what needs to be built, why and for whom the product is built, [and] how it will be built and delivered. They are not the same as project managers. Although they are a staple of digital teams in the private sector, they are rare in government.

When the needs and experiences of real people aren’t put first throughout the development process, a lot of money and time can be spent on software that doesn’t deliver what the people using it actually need. need.

3. Insufficient technical capacity and expertise

Although digital technology is a key part of government operations, it is common for governments to lack the technological knowledge and skills necessary to plan, manage and implement such projects and services. This creates challenges both for much of the government’s IT work that is outsourced to the private sector as well as for in-house technology development efforts.


  • At the administrative/management level, legislators, executives and politicians often lack the appropriate knowledge that is essential for strategy, policy and budgeting.
  • Purchasing Office and Mission Agency Staff sometimes lack the domain-specific knowledge needed to effectively write RFPs, evaluate vendors, and act as good product owners for digital technology; it’s hard to supervise the work if you don’t know how the work should be done.
  • In terms of actual technology development and delivery, some work is outsourced that would actually be cheaper or more efficient to do in-house, but cannot due to insufficient the skills and/or expertise of internal staff in key digital disciplines.

Common challenges governments face when hiring certain types of digital specialists include: complex hiring processes, outdated job titles, below-market salaries, educational requirements, and bureaucratic work rules. By addressing some of these issues, as well as educating policy makers and upskilling existing employees, governments can dramatically improve their digital capabilities.

Where do we go from here?

In addition to these key issues, there are several others that further complicate matters: complex laws and policies on government programs; security, privacy and accessibility requirements; and divisions between different departments and agencies as well as different levels of government.

As difficult as some of the issues discussed in this article may seem, they are absolutely solvable. We regularly see examples both in our work at Code for America and beyond.

This fall, we’ll be publishing a series of blog posts addressing each of the big issues listed above. By facing these challenges head-on, we can help government work for the people, by the people, in the digital age.

This article is reprinted from Apolitical.


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