It's never entirely graceful when the behemoths of the federal bureaucracy tiptoe into the online waters. The Department of Education, though, faces a number of challenges that other offices don't, not the least of which is attracting young people to a site ending in ".gov."
"The satisfaction someone has with a Web site is based on two things: what they're actually getting from that site, but also their expectations for it," said Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee Results, which polls visitors to government sites. "When you think about their audience profile" at the Education Department, "their audience will have much higher expectations than someone going to a Medicare site or even an IRS site."
Use of government Web sites is most common among those in their mid-30s to mid-60s, according to a report issued in January by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The same report found teens are less likely than adult users to send e-mail, but more likely to instant message; less likely to look for news on the Web, but more likely to get it on social networking sites and blogs.
As these young citizens age, some of their habits will change, but their expectations will remain high. That makes today's teens an early indicator for what government agencies will be expected to provide in years to come, and the need to reach them in their preferred medium has made Education something of a pioneer among government agencies, even as it continues to learn how to appeal to young people in a medium full of other options.
Education's is the most-visited Web domain of any Cabinet department -- and even more than WhiteHouse.gov -- according to comparative analyses by Quantcast and Alexa. But it's far from the most-loved. The E-Government Satisfaction Index, a poll of Web visitors released in December by ForeSee Results, rated Education's offerings below eight other agencies, with a user satisfaction score of just 67 out 100.
Holly Anderson, project lead of College.gov, an Education Department site intended to appeal to high schoolers, expressed optimism that the Obama administration would lower barriers that have prevented the department's Web offerings from meeting young people's expectations. "We're pretty excited because we think more social networking will be open to the government," Anderson said. "In the past, we've had -- I wouldn't say issues, but College.gov did a lot of things first, so we had to go through the office of government counsel."
The arrival of Education Secretary Arne Duncan has spurred new online ventures at Ed.gov, including the requisite YouTube channel, Twitter feeds and blog tracking the latest activities of the secretary. But even before the new administration and its emphasis on Web transparency, the agency was stepping up its efforts to connect with teenagers online.
College.gov, which launched in September, was conceived by former Under Secretary Sara Tucker in order to encourage teenagers to consider college. The site features a distinctly nongovernmental look and feel and provides visitors with basic information on subjects such as "why go" and "how to pay." Focus groups have found that bureaucratic terms such as "financial aid" made students glaze over, but they perked up at more conversational phrases like "paying for college."
Anderson paraphrases students' expectations for the department this way: "We want you to come to us. We don't see you on Facebook. We don't see you on MySpace. If you want to communicate with us, you have to come where we are."
While it might still have trouble drawing kids away from Facebook and other popular sites, College.gov is a significant step forward for the government in reaching out to kids. Students.gov, a joint effort under the leadership of the Education Department, does little more than aggregate search results from different dot-gov domains. The Treasury Department's kids page is more colorful, but hardly more appealing.
"We all know the information we want students to have: It's how do you get them to read and do what you want them to do?" said Sheri Lynn Rowland, a student adviser at Tallahassee Community College who is one of 295 fans of College.gov on Facebook. "Seeing the interactivity and the way it tries to engage high schoolers was great."
Still, Rowland said she doesn't know any students who have used College.gov, and the site brings in just 25,000 to 40,000 visitors per month. Her own state's student Web site, Facts.org, does far better traffic, partly because state legislators have mandated its use in middle school but also because its depth of resources helps students plan future coursework and connects seniors with loans and scholarships. Some 500,000 Florida high schoolers are currently using the site, a number the agency expects to top 1 million by the end of the school year.
Because Florida's Department of Education is much closer to the ground than its federal counterpart, it is able to microtarget messages and services to particular school districts and even students, personalizing content the way large commercial sites have done for years.
"When you buy a book on Amazon, you get a notice for 10 other things you could buy," said Connie Graunke, who oversees Facts.org. "What we want to do is send notices to students when they log on to their system that say, 'Your scores say that you would be eligible to take AP courses' -- to be proactive in putting this information in front of students."
For most students, their main interaction with Ed.gov and its affiliated sites is the FAFSA, a lengthy application for federal student aid. The process has migrated almost entirely online, with 99 percent of applicants turning to the Web to file their forms, the department said. During the FAFSA site's busiest day this year, March 1, it received and processed about 250,000 applications, with more than 40,000 people logged in at once. The economic downturn, combined with a larger-than-usual graduating high school class, helped drive online applications up 21 percent from last year.
Education officials say they're committed to improving outreach to young people with narrowcasting sites like College.gov and more use of social media. But for now, their most popular offerings remain what the E-Government Satisfaction Index refers to as "transactional sites," such as the FAFSA form, which allow users to complete a specific task instead of just looking up information. While Education sites as a whole scored 67 on the consumer satisfaction index, the FAFSA site netted an 88.
"We see fairly good future behavior scores on a lot of government Web sites," said Freed of ForeSee Results. "What that means is that people will continue using it as it improves despite problems now. A lot of this, it's the best source of the information, so just getting it online is a huge step."