Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Upgrading .Gov to Appeal to Millennials

BY Michael Connery | Monday, April 6 2009

(Promoted to the front page -- Nancy)

There is a great article in The National Journal that deserves more attention: Ed.Gov's Tough Homework. The gist is this: young people are growing up in a world where technology turns over every couple of months, and the expectation is that online experiences will be both intuitive and interactive. Most websites using the .gov domain, however, are barely a step above BBS's in the lineage of the web. It's a problem of both design and functionality, the result of which are dashed expectations on the part of Millennials, and low traffic and usage rates on .gov sites.

It's never entirely graceful when the behemoths of the federal bureaucracy tiptoe into the online waters. The Department of Education, though, faces a number of challenges that other offices don't, not the least of which is attracting young people to a site ending in ".gov."

"The satisfaction someone has with a Web site is based on two things: what they're actually getting from that site, but also their expectations for it," said Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee Results, which polls visitors to government sites. "When you think about their audience profile" at the Education Department, "their audience will have much higher expectations than someone going to a Medicare site or even an IRS site."

Read the rest of the article. It's pretty shocking. The Department of Education's web pages are painted as trailblazers (or at least front-line fighters) in this struggle to modernize the government's online presence, but it's not at all clear to me that they are successful or that their strategies are correct. Traffic on sites like are shockingly low (if the article is correct, the site garners barely more traffic than a state political blog), and attempts to connect with students on Facebook have proved fruitless (though execution seems somewhat half-hearted).

I think the crux of the problem is twofold: most young people don't know where, why, or when to visit a government site (except perhaps high-profile sites like or, and when they do make their way onto a .gov website, many of those sites are extremely static and information dense. It's really hard to wade through all the links and figure out how to do anything useful on them (assuming you can do anything useful, which is a big "if," since many sites are barely beyond "brochure-ware"). That's probably why:

their most popular offerings remain what the E-Government Satisfaction Index refers to as "transactional sites," such as the FAFSA form, which allow users to complete a specific task instead of just looking up information. While Education sites as a whole scored 67 on the consumer satisfaction index, the FAFSA site netted an 88.

Social media, when used correctly, can help increase traffic and some of the functionality of these sites, but more than hopping on the latest tech trend, government websites demand a basic usability upgrade. Government techies need to determine what various departments can do for citizens (and conversely what citizens would like them to do for us), and develop a really clean intuitive design that actually walks people through those processes. It would be a nice cherry on top if we could also have personal data transfer from one agency to the other using a secure account linked to our SS# (imagine if I could pay my taxes on using a Turbo-Tax style interface, transfer all that data easily over to my FAFSA, and maybe apply for disaster relief or unemployment insurance should it become necessary with one easy account/interface accessible from any .gov domain).

Once those core problems of usability are solved, I could then easily think of probably a dozen ways or more to use social media as a distribution channel to reach out to Millennials where they are. Thinking specifically about the Department of Education's site, I would create Facebook, MySpace, MiGente and Black Planet accounts, all supported by targeted, in-site ads; targeted Google Ads in low-income communities where college attendance is low; Twitter and other microblogging services as a way to alert students to grant/loan opportunities and upcoming deadlines. . . etc. The possibilities are endless, but the sites must first become useful.

Expectations on Millennials to contribute major accomplishments to American civic life are high and growing. Our ability to interact with government (and faith in the reliability and quality of those interactions) will be a factor in our ability to live up to those expectations. I highly recommend this article, and commend the author for asking some good questions that I don't see anyone else exploring.

Those interested in this topic from an official/constituent perspective should check out the work that the New York State Senate CIO is doing to upgrade a state legislative branch for the 21st Century.

News Briefs

RSS Feed today >

Brazilian President Signs Internet Bill of Rights Into Law at NetMundial

Earlier today Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff sanctioned Marco Civil, also called the Internet bill of rights, during the global Internet governance event, NetMundial, in Brazil.


tuesday > Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and And strangely enough, seems to want its early users to ask for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.


monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.


The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.


Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.


wednesday >

Facebook Seeks Approval as Financial Service in Ireland. Is the Developing World Next?

On April 13 the Financial Times reported that Facebook is only weeks away from being approved as a financial service in Ireland. Is this foray into e-money motivated by Facebook's desire to conquer the developing world before other corporate Internet giants do? Maybe.