The government’s online strategy is taking shape but the process is not entirely without its hiccups. So claims Howard Rybko, CEO, Syncrony, Gauteng-based provider of web design and content management services.
Rybko believes that the official e-strategy is gaining momentum in the realisation of its objectives. These objectives include establishing a program for the people and a mechanism by which ICT capabilities are used to help deliver economic and social development.
“Having scrutinised relevant documents and previous studies conducted, including Public Service IT Policy Framework and the Status of E-government in South Africa, it is quite clear that the provision of government e-services is directly related to the effectiveness of government online strategy and this process is well underway,” says Rybko.
He makes it clear that the review process has concentrated on availability, aesthetic quality and general ease of access to information.
“Overall the government is doing a pretty good job in the online space. Based on the availability of the various government department sites, as well as the freshness of information on these sites, there has been a major improvement in government performance in the online space,” he continues.
At the same time Rybko acknowledges that there are real challenges, particularly in terms of ineffective website presence.
“Many government sites have up-to-date information available on their home pages and this is a major achievement which clearly demonstrates government’s commitment to online service delivery. But there are examples of sites that fall way short of the mark as far as ease of use, quality of information, navigation and other basic credentials that one would likely find on a useful, practical and powerful website,” he adds.
As examples Rybko refers to both the CIPRO and Department of Home Affairs websites.
“When discussing government websites we have to include the CIPRO site. This site has been a source of on-going frustration and embarrassment since last year. Major technical issues have plagued the system and services offered from the site have been erratic or simply not available over various period of this year. The site itself is horrible. It has enough links, text and information of its home page to paralyse even the most savvy web user,” he says.
“Access to services and information is hidden behind a navigational maze that flies out over a chain of notices that disappear below the screen and seem to continue downwards en route to the centre of the earth,” Rybko continues.
Additionally he makes reference to difficulty with the Home Affairs website. “The home page has its navigation based on the right hand side of the screen. This effectively hides the menu from easy access for any reader who reads from left to right. Ample evidence from various Golden Triangle readability research projects show that text or navigation places on the right hand side of a web page does not noticed or read. Readability of the site content is hampered by its expansive design which allows the site to stretch to fit the widest monitors. This results in long lines of text that is difficult to read. Readability studies consistently show that website visitors cope best with text in relatively narrow columns that echo newspaper layouts,” he adds.
To make matter worse all other pages besides the home page move the menu and navigation even further to the right, compounding accessibility issues Rybko explains.
“The up-to-date news items are the most visible text on the page and are the least interesting information most visitors will be looking for. Home page graphic elements are not carried over the pages below; all pages besides the home page have a completely different look and feel. Getting back to the home page is also a challenge because the link for that is cunningly hidden on the left hind side of the screen instead of being part of the global site navigation,” he continues.
Despite a few setbacks in establishing a firm, credible and effective online reputation, the government is well on its way to carry its strategy through and already soliciting a return on investment says Rybko.
In order to safeguard its progress and continue on this trail Rybko advises that the government focus its efforts and resources on issues such as making documents available in a digital entry format that is connected to an online database with proper document management process, for example.
“The on-going goal for government sites should be to continue to move paper-based processes online. This does not mean providing PDF documents for download, an awkward and unhelpful practice evident on all government sites. Having a PDF online is often considered to be the end of the process of going digital. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is where on-going efforts in the online space need to be targeted. Making it possible for citizens to complete processes online that used to require standing in queues is a goal that is definitely achievable by building on our current online capabilities.”