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May 15, 2011 / David Woodford

Government Websites are doomed to fail

It seems to be a fundamental feature of the government that every thing they do must have a website and that these website must be impossible to navigate and break whenever you try and use them. The advantages of doing things online is that they are quick and simple to do, since there is no need to wait for the Royal Mail and you aren’t relying on a person at the other end to copy your forms into a database. When I try and use these websites this never seems to be the case. When I applied for my driving license online I still had to send a photo in the post and when I recently tried to reapply for my student loan it took over half an hour before I could even log into the system. Apparantly the password they email to you after you reset you password doesn’t work for some unknown amount of time; and so if you follow the instructions to try and log in with it you will end up locking your account requiring you to reset it again (I’m still unsure why someone having failed to login without your password three times means that you need to change your password).

I’m certain the problem isn’t me. If successfully managed to set a password and use it to log in on many websites before. On some I have even been able to use the password reset feature to get a new password emailed to me and then managed to copy it into the log in form. I have even managed to create several of my own websites, some with crude log in systems I designed, that people have been able to log into. But it doesn’t seem to matter what I’m trying to do, provided its on a government website it won’t work.

One of the reasons why web based technology has improved so quickly is that the costs of doing developing it are very low. If someone thinks they can create a better website than those already existing they can relatively cheaply create that better site and there is usually little cost to the people using the old site of switching (perhaps with the notable exception of social  networks since you need to be on the network that your friends are on). However, with government (and some large business) websites this competition isn’t their. I can only get my driving lisencse or apply for a student loan though the offical sites since they are the only people with the authority to fulfill my requests.

The problem is made worse by the fact that these government departments don’t have to make a profit so it doesn’t seem to matter to them that the failure of their website means they need an office of people to deal with the requests over the phone or by post. In fact they can claim that the website is working because this office is slightly smaller than it was before.

Government sites also have a tendency to try to prove how secure they are be requiring more and more layers of authentication which eventually result in the site being unusable. However the large  number of glitches in the way the website handles input data and the amount of javascript used on the pages means it is unlikely much testing has been done and so other vulnerabilities may exist which don’t require an attacker to log in. Since most of these sites only need the user to fill in a form they should be created in a way which doesn’t require the browser to be running javascript so that people can try an improve their security. Most of the current sites will simply stop working if you disable it.

These websites are one of the most visible signs of waste created simply because a service is being operated by the government. However, their are many other less visible examples of this problem within the public sector that should be considered whenever we are deciding whether or not a particular service should be provided by the government rather than the private sector.

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