The start of the war in Iraq has underlined public demand for government information online. But, although public sector organisations are taking steps to meet the prime minister's 2005 deadline for making all government services available online, the performance of many government websites may discourage public uptake, new research from Parallel has revealed.
The research, exclusive to Computer Weekly, found that public sector websites had the worst availability and download times compared to all other industry sectors analysed by the network monitoring firm.
The mean availability of all sites over the two-month monitoring period was only 98.7%, equating to nearly five days of downtime per website, per year, the research found. City councils had the lowest availability at 97.8%, which equates to over eight days of downtime per year.
The average download time for public sector sites when accessed via a modem - as 84% of internet users do, according to Oftel - was 21.8 seconds, the research found. This is far in excess of 8 seconds, the accepted time limit after which experts believe most users will become impatient.
This slow download time was probably caused by the large page size found on most public sector organisations' home pages, Parallel said. At 69Kbytes, the average home page size was 73% larger than the government's recommended page size of 40Kbytes. And the problems go right to the top - the home page of the official website for 10 Downing Street was 187Kbytes, the largest of all 70 websites monitored.
Tim Moore, director at Parallel, said public sector organisations should judge themselves in the same way as commercial businesses when it comes to website performance.
"The public is used to increasing performance from commercial websites and will demand the same level of performance from the public sector," he said. "While the public sector is taking steps to embrace the internet as an essential communication and transactional channel in which to reach the public, the results of this report show that public sector websites are currently not achieving the same performance standards as commercial websites."
According to a recent report from analyst Forrester Research, 58% of consumers would be unlikely to return to a site where they encountered problems on their first visit, while 62% said they were unlikely to return to a site where a transaction had failed.
These rules apply as much to public sector organisations as they do to commercial bodies, Moore said.
"Every service has competition, and in this case, the competition will be mail, telephone and person-to-person transactions," he said. "Customers will simply return to more traditional methods of finding out information, paying council tax and so forth, and the online initiative will fail."
Parallel monitored 70 public service, council and political party websites, using its Nexus Watch automated monitoring tool. The software emulated a customer connecting to a website every 15 minutes from 28 November to 20 January. The company recorded and analysed website availability, download, connection and response time and page size.
The public's demand for government information over the web was underlined last week with the beginning of the war on Iraq. Research from web monitoring firm Keynote Systems has revealed that the beginning of hostilities and the potential increased threat of terrorism led to a surge of interest in UK government information websites, but that they failed to hold up to public demand.
The Home Office's dedicated Terrorism Information website failed to meet demand with downloads approaching 1 minute (56.71 seconds) during the lunchtime period on 19 March with availability dropping to just 50%.
These statistics reveal major server capacity issues from the site, said Keynote. Indeed, it seems that the threat of terrorism was a real concern throughout the day as download speeds averaged only 35.49 seconds, the company said.
Of greater importance to UK citizens abroad, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office site also suffered major capacity problems, with download times of over a minute (76.03 seconds) during the afternoon of 17 March with availability of only 83%. This will have presented problems to anyone trying to access travel advice from abroad, especially if they were using a "dial-up" connection, Keynote said.
News sites performed better, but they failed to handle the peak in demand over the lunchtime period on 18 March, the research found. The BBC news site dropped in performance from an average download speed of 0.47 seconds to 1.88 seconds between 1pm and 2pm and the ITV news site mirrored the performance slowdown from 5.66 seconds to 15.84 seconds.