Government Website Performance as Open Data

By Nick Sinai
Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow

Monday, March 16 marked the beginning of the 10th anniversary of Sunshine Week, the annual nationwide celebration of access to public information.

Despite media reports to the contrary, the yet untold story is that the Obama Administration is making progress on making government more transparent and open.

And while open government advocates often focus on greater public access to records, as more government services are delivered fully or partially digitally, the American public can and should have more granular and even real-time data on government performance.

Recognizing this, the Obama Administration released today an analytics dashboard showing how people across the country use Federal government websites.

Specifically, analytics.usa.gov shows:

  • How many people are interacting with a federal government website at any given time;
  • Which government website pages are most popular; and
  • Summary statistics on the devices, browsers, and operating systems people use when they visit Federal government websites.

In addition to a user-friendly dashboard, the underlying data is available for download so people can build apps with the data, or glean new insights into government service delivery.

The data will also be useful inside government. Armed with this information, federal officials can make data-driven decisions to improve information and transactions for the American people.

Here are some of the interesting statistics:

  • While there have been over a billion visits to federal government websites in the past 90 days, there are only a few hundred thousand users at any one time.
  • The most popular websites include the IRS, the National Weather Service, Social Security, and citizenship and immigration services.
  • Two thirds of users access government websites on desktop and one third access government websites from mobile phones and tablets.

You can see a similar approach across the pond in the U.K., thanks to the pioneering work of the Government Digital Services (GDS). On Gov.uk, you can see how many British residents applied for a driver’s license test, the uptime of the transaction website, the cost per transaction, and the customer satisfaction with that digital service.

These are just a few examples of the 110 government services that are tracked by Gov.uk and shared with the public. U.K. citizens can view public metrics on everything from prison visit bookings to patent renewals online.

In fact, the U.S. government is collaborating with the U.K. government to improve government digital service delivery, share best practices, and open up data. Megan Smith, the U.S. Chief Technology Officer, and Shaun Donovan, the Office of Management and Budget Director, describe the ongoing collaboration in a January blog post.

Making government web performance open follows the digital services playbook from the new U.S. Digital Services. Using data to drive decisions and defaulting to open are important strategies for building simple and useful citizen-facing digital services.

Real-time and historical government web performance is another example of how open government data holds the promise of improving government accountability and rebuilding trust in government.

Opening government is an ongoing process, and much of the discussion this week will rightly be on how to do more. But both sides of the aisle should pause and give kudos to this important step for government transparency.

Nick Sinai is an inaugural Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Nick is also a Venture Partner at Insight Venture Partners, a global software, data, and technology venture capital and private equity firm. He is a former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer at the White House. Prior to joining the Obama administration, Nick was a venture capitalist at Lehman Brothers Venture Partners (now Tenaya Capital) and previously, Polaris Partners.