The Economist has an interesting piece on why government web services tend to suck, especially when compared with the best corporate services. Their take is that a significant part of it is that isn’t any kind of competition, so there isn’t much fall out if government web tools are wretched:
When Britain’s Inland Revenue website crashed on January 31st—the busiest day of its year—the authorities grudgingly gave taxpayers one day’s grace before imposing penalties. They did not offer the chance to pay tax in Sweden instead.
I suspect there’s significant truth in this, but I’m not convinced it’s the whole story. It’s amazing, for example, how many university web sites/tools are pretty wretched, including those in the computer science departments. You’d think that would drive away prospective students in ways that, in this very competitive environment, would have the kind of direct consequences that purportedly drive Amazon and Google. I certainly know that the U of M’s growing adoption/creation of on-line tools has hardly been without its trials and travails; many of their web tools are really nice, while others totally make me want to cry. Sometimes the problems are lack of infrastructure supporting the development and maintenance of the tools (a problem that’s clearly plagued many business making the transition from bricks and morter to on-line). Sometimes the problem is infighting and bureaucratic silliness that would be cut off at the knees in a well managed company (but isn’t always – not all companies are well managed).
I think, however, that one of the chronic problems (for the U of M, for governments, and for many companies) stems from the fact that the key decision makers just don’t use the internet much, so they’re not well positioned to judge the success and failure of their organization’s efforts. They often don’t use their own tools, so they don’t know how painfully awful they are, and when they do use them they don’t have the rich frame of reference needed to see what could be instead of just what is. And thus we get embarrassingly precambrian web tools. Compare this to Google, for example, where it’s clear that (a) their people are using their tools at all levels and (b) they’re very aware of what other people are doing on the web (and not just in the area of search tools).
Tip of the cap to Naughton once again for the pointer.