No one doubts that the digital revolution has changed the way U.S. citizens buy books and trade stocks, but what has it done for democracy? Fascinated by the explosion of growth and sophistication on the commercial side of the World Wide Web, last summer Darrell West and four students looked at 1,800 public-sector Web sites to see whether they’re keeping up. His conclusion? “It’s chaos out there,” says West, professor of political science and director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions. “The Internet is like the tower of Babel— there is no consistency in design or information delivery.”
West and his team evaluated the sites of all fifty state governments and ninety-seven federal offices and courts; they also e-mailed the chief information officers in all the states and more than a third of the federal agencies to rate them on responsiveness. Each site was evaluated on features ranging from the most basic (providing telephone numbers) to the most advanced (privacy policies, translation services, audio and video clips).
Federal Web sites fared better in the study than state ones. For example, while 70 percent of federal sites offer some kind of service to their visitors, the rate for state sites is only one in five. “Part of the problem is cost, but the flip side is that there needs to be leadership and vision,” West explains. “The federal government has made this a priority—you have to want to do this in order to make it work.”
Not surprisingly, large states have better sites than small ones. Rhode Island was rated dead last in West’s study, while Texas finished first. Among the federal sites, executive agencies with a consumer or taxpayer focus—the IRS and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, for example—did best. The White House Web site, on the other hand, ranked near the bottom of the list.