Since taking office last January, the Obama administration has made transparency and accountability the watchwords of its open government strategy.
That initiative, codified in a presidential directive issued on the president's first full day in office, has invited plenty of criticism from detractors who see the administration's effort on the e-government front as more bluster than substance. Supporters, meanwhile, point to the hundreds of new and overhauled websites the departments and agencies have set up, bringing troves of government data and information online and readily available to the public.
So how has the administration been doing?
A new survey of a small sampling of federal websites awards them a score of 75 on a transparency scale of 100, down a point from a similar survey conducted in the first quarter.
The study, conducted by ForeSee Results, a research firm that analyzes consumer sentiment, also found a sharp correlation between visitors' evaluations of a government website's transparency with their overall satisfaction with the agency's online presence. Those factors, in turn, informed survey respondents' level of trust in government.
"The need for transparency in government is not a fad," Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee Results, wrote in the report. "As much as it is admittedly the current political flavor-of-the-month, our research indicates it shouldn't be. Not only does transparency have a significant and quantifiable impact on making government more democratic and cost-effective, it is highly prized by citizens."
Survey respondents who ranked a government website with a transparency score of 80 or higher on the 100-point index expressed satisfaction ratings 85 percent higher than those who gave sites transparency scores of 70 or lower.
ForeSee found that sites with high transparency scores corresponded with 56 percent higher levels of trust in the particular government agency than sites with scores at the lower end.
Similarly, high transparency scores were also associated with higher levels of engagement with the agency, and a higher likelihood of the individual returning to the site or recommending it to others.
"Trust is one attribute that a government entity can never take for granted," Freed said. "It is one of the few qualities for which citizens are willing to turn a blind eye or give a down-on-its-luck agency a second or third chance."
ForeSee evaluates government websites, as well as a bevy of commercial Internet properties, using the American Customer Satisfaction Index, a methodology developed by researchers at the University of Michigan.
In evaluating satisfaction with government sites, ForeSee asks visitors their opinion of site features such as search and navigability. The firm has been conducting its e-Government Satisfaction Index quarterly since 2002, expanding over the years to include 110 federal websites.
ForeSee only set up the transparency index last year. In the most recent report, the third of its kind, the firm evaluated 27 federal websites, an 18 percent increase over the first quarter.