Many local government websites are failing to engage customers because their designers have not given enough thought to performance issues.
This is just one of the findings of the Better Connected 2002 report carried out by the Society of IT Managers (Socitm) into how well local authorities are managing in meeting e-government targets.
Compuware, which provides website monitoring services, looked at the performance of the home page of 20 of the most usable local authority sites identified by Socitm.
Sites which topped the list were as good as any equivalent private sector sites. Westminster, Camden, Tameside and Hertfordshire councils were deemed the best local authority sites.
Commenting on the report's findings, e-envoy Andrew Pinder said: "It is encouraging that the best local authority websites now perform as well as the best private sector sites.
"But we still have a long way to go. Local authorities need to redouble efforts to meet customer expectations."
Fifteen of the 20 sites completed home page downloads in less than five seconds and the average response time was 3.6 seconds. Only one site had a response time above the 10 second threshold. Measurements were taken once every hour over seven days in January.
Vange Yianni, technology manager at Compuware, said: "On average the response time was favourable compared to the top 40 UK companies. The number and size of graphics was the most important factor affecting response times.
"Companies should balance usability with performance [when designing a site]. It is important to identify which graphics are causing performance problems. Reducing the number of graphics [on the home page] or placing them locally is advisable."
To conduct the tests Compuware used a network connection rather than a dial up line because it wanted consistent results, so the experience of the end user will also depend on the performance of the internet service provider.
Compuware advised IT managers to understand what determines good performance. "Managing performance means addressing not just basic response time but the related issues of reliability, integrity and scalability which impact so heavily on the user experience," said the report.
Other findings in the research show that only four of the 467 local authorities across the country have full transactional websites. This is defined as those that have developed more than one type of online interaction, such as payments, applications and bookings.
"Many authorities have been busy in adding transactions to their sites but this does not make them 'transactional' and therefore, in our view, fit for e-government," said Socitm's Martin Greenwood, who commissioned the report.
But while there has been a five-fold increase in the transactional capabilities of such sites, responses to online queries have decreased.
Only 41 per cent of sites receiving queries by email actually responded, compared to last year's figure of 60 per cent. Just 34 per cent of local authorities replied within 10 days, down from 53 per cent last year.
"[The report] provides clear evidence that the overall rate of improvement has not yet accelerated," said Greenwood. "If anything it has slowed down from last year."
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