The News Service
Fourth annual ‘e-government’ survey
Readability is a problem for state and federal government Web sites
The fourth annual ‘e-government’ survey, conducted at Brown University, finds that most state and federal government Web sites are written at too high a grade level for average American users. About one-third of sites examined satisfied recognized standards for accessibility by users with vision or hearing impairment. Rankings for state and federal Web sites appear below.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Most state and federal government Web sites are not fully accessible to American citizens because they are written at too high a grade level, according to the fourth annual e-government analysis conducted by researchers at Brown University.
Darrell M. West, director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University, and a team of researchers led by Joanne Chiu and Erica Dreisbach examined 1,603 state sites (an average of 32 sites per state) and 60 federal sites. Financial support for the project was provided by Brown University. Research was completed during June and July 2003. Previous e-government studies were released in 2000, 2001 and 2002.
Researchers evaluated readability levels by employing the Flesch-Kincaid test, a standard reading evaluator tool used by the U.S. Department of Defense. The test computes reading level by dividing the average sentence length (number of words divided by number of sentences) by the average number of syllables per word (number of syllables divided by the number of words).
The average readability of American state and federal Web sites is at the eleventh-grade level, well above the comprehension level of many Americans. According to national literacy statistics, half of Americans read at the eighth-grade level or lower. This year’s analysis of government Web sites found 67 percent at the twelfth-grade level and only 12 percent at the eighth-grade level or lower.
There are some differences between state and federal sites. Sixty-eight percent of state sites read at the twelfth-grade level, while 63 percent of the federal sites do so. Agency type also matters, although not always in a manner consistent with the particular audience served by the Web site. Researchers tested a theory that agencies serving a more highly educated clientele would gear their Web sites to a higher level than those serving people with less formal education.
Agencies presumably geared toward the less educated, however, did not have lower grade-level readability. For example, corrections departments report the highest percentage (83 percent) of Web sites written at the twelfth-grade level. Other agencies that have a high percentage of sites written at the twelfth-grade level include budget (81 percent), economic development (79 percent), elementary education (74 percent), housing (69 percent), health (69 percent), human services (67 percent) and taxation (46 percent).
The study also examined disability accessibility for users with vision or hearing impairment. Using the online “Bobby” service [at http://bobby.watchfire.com], researchers at Brown evaluated the actual accessibility of Web sites using two different measures: compliance with the Priority Level One standards recommended by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and compliance with the legal requirements of Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Sites were judged to be either in compliance or not in compliance based on the results of these two tests.
In this year's study, 33 percent of state and federal sites satisfied the W3C standard of accessibility, and 24 percent met the guidelines for Section 508. Federal sites (47 percent) are more likely than state sites (33 percent) to meet the W3C standard of accessibility. Researchers found little difference between state sites (24 percent) and federal sites (22 percent) in meeting Section 508 accessibility standards.
Foreign language access is an area of improvement in state and federal e-government. The percent of Web sites with foreign language translation or publications in a foreign language is 13 percent, up from 7 percent last year. However, there is a wide discrepancy this year between state and federal Web sites, with 12 percent of state Web sites and 40 percent of federal Web sites offering foreign language translation.
The study ranks the 50 states and various federal agencies on overall e-government performance. Using measures such as online services, attention to privacy and security, disability access, foreign language translation, Web site personalization and e-mail responsiveness, the research team rated the various state sites and compared their performance to last year.
The top ranking state is Massachusetts with 46.3 points out of a possible 100, followed closely by Texas (43), Indiana (42.4), Tennessee (41.1), and California (41.1). The states achieving the lowest rankings are Nebraska (31.3), New Mexico (30.9), and Alaska (30.3). The following table shows where each state ranked in 2003, with the previous year's ranking or score in parentheses.
Among federal sites, the FirstGov portal ranks first with 84 out of a possible 100 points, followed by the Federal Communications Commission (73), Social Security Administration (68), Internal Revenue Service (68), and the Library of Congress (68). The federal sites that had the lowest ratings are the various Circuit Courts of Appeal. The following table lists the ranking of federal agencies in 2003, with last year's rank or score in parentheses.
In the conclusion of their report, West and his research team suggest several means to improve e-government Web sites. Their recommendations include:
For more information about the results of this study, please contact Darrell West at (401) 863-1163 or see the full report at www.insidepolitics.org. The appendix of that report provides e-government profiles for each of the 50 states and the federal agencies.