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UK government websites today came under attack for failing to help the very citizens most likely to need the information and services that they offer.

According to a damming study from the Society of IT Management (Socitm) and Citizens Advice, the charity representing the national network of Citizens Advice Bureaux, Whitehall's online offerings have "some way to go" if they are to meet e-government targets.

The study, Better connected: Advice to citizens, found that problems began even before people even got the government sites because "the performance of UKOnline as a signpost to e-government services is disappointing".

Anybody relying on search engines to take them to sources of government information will far too often find themselves led to "inappropriate websites" if they use everyday language in their search terms, whilst relevant and appropriate sites are ignored, the report warned.

Even after the appropriate government website is found, its ability to provide the right information and usable services was found to be far from reliable. "The ability to access claim forms online is a key aspect of the usefulness and usability of government websites, but the user experience varies widely. Some forms are very easy to download, but others are unnecessarily difficult. Some forms allow you to save them partially completed others do not. And it is clear that many forms have not been redesigned to make them work well on the web," Socitm and Citizens Advice say.

According to Martin Greenwood, programme manager for Socitm Insight, the study demonstrates that web managers need to get their collective act together and try harder to understand what information people actually need: "All parts of government should take as broad a view as possible of the difficulties of citizens and consumers of their services. The Citizens Advice list of common problems and the questions that might be linked to them is a good starting point."

The report tested the ability of central government and local authority websites to provide relevant information and services in response to enquiries in areas including benefits, housing, health, debt, legal proceedings, consumer complaints and relationship breakdown. ®

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