Government Web sites are not meeting the needs of their audience, according to a study by user interface specialist The Hiser Group.

-People don’t move around very well across these sites,” says managing director Susan Wolfe. -Their [government’s] heart is in the right place, it’s just not [being] implemented properly.”

Participants varying in age, gender and Internet experience were asked to perform a variety of everyday activities including paying council rates, renewing vehicle registration and finding immunisation information for a newborn baby.

Despite attempts by some governments to implement a portal or ‘channel’ approach, -people have to have a really good understanding of who’s responsible for what in government.” Not only does this involve knowledge of the different tiers of government, but a realisation that some quasi-government activities (such as buying an e-tag for Melbourne’s toll roads) must be done at a commercial site.

Other problems with government portals include insufficient cross-linking, inconsistent information, and that users can become confused when moving between sites: -people don’t know when they’ve left one site and gone into another,” says Wolfe.

The good news is that -people do want to use the web as their preferred way of dealing with government,” she says. Although no government is setting a usability lead at this stage, the breadth of capabilities impressed people in the study. Multi-tier services such as Victoria’s Multi-service Express are good starting points as people like the idea of a single gateway, says Wolfe, but they need to be promoted more strongly.

-To be citizen-centric, the sites must allow users to seamlessly get the information that they need, whether it means using cross-agency portals from the same level of government, or using multiple tiers of government,” she adds.

One study participant said, -If sites are clumsy, they are representative of the problems we’ve had in the past. An inability to access government means a distance between government and the people. That’s not what we want.”

If governments get this right, there are significant gains for agencies — but until they do, their web sites will add costs instead of delivering savings. Pooling resources, for example a consistent look and feel with common conventions for navigation and searching, could make further savings and benefit users.