Improving Mobile Access to Government Websites

GAO Looks at Who Uses Mobile Devices to Access the Internet

Federal Agencies Working to Improve Mobile Device Access to Government Websites. Michael Thomas/Getty Images

The U.S. federal government is working to improve access to the wealth of information and services available on its more than 11,000 websites from mobile devices like tablets and cellphones, according to an interesting new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

While most people still use desktop and laptop computers, consumers are increasingly using mobile devices to access websites with government information and services.

As the GAO noted, millions of Americans use mobile devices every day to get information from websites. In addition, mobile users can now do many things on websites that previously required a desktop or laptop computer, like shopping, banking, and accessing government services.

For example, the number of individual visitors using cellphones and tablets to access the Department of the Interior's information and services increased significantly from 57,428 visitors in 2011 to 1,206,959 in 2013, according to agency records provided to the GAO.

Given this trend, the GAO pointed that the government needs to make its wealth of information and services available “anytime, anywhere, and on any device.”  

However, as the GAO points out, mobile Internet users face a range of challenges accessing government services online. “For example, viewing any website that has not been “optimized” for mobile access—in other words, redesigned for smaller screens—can be challenging,” notes the GAO report.

Trying to Meet the Mobile Challenge

On May 23, 2012, President Obama issued an executive order entitled “Building a 21st Century Digital Government,” directing the federal agencies to deliver better digital services to the American people.

“As a Government, and as a trusted provider of services, we must never forget who our customers are – the American people,” the President told the agencies.

In response to that order, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget created a Digital Government Strategy to be implemented by the Digital Services Advisory Group. The Advisory Group provides the agencies with help and resources needed to improve access to their websites via mobile devices.

At the request of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), the government’s purchasing agent and property manager, the GAO investigated the progress and success of the agencies in meeting the goals of the Digital Government Strategy.

What the GAO Found

In all, 24 agencies are required to comply with provisions of the Digital Government Strategy, and according to the GAO, all 24 have made efforts to improve their digital services for those who use mobile devices.

In its investigation the GAO specifically reviewed six randomly selected agencies: the Department of the Interior (DOI), the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) within the Department of Homeland Security, the National Weather Service (NWS) within the Department of Commerce, the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC), and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

The GAO reviewed 5 years (2009 through 2013) of online visitor data as recorded by Google Analytics from each agency. The data included the type of device (smartphone, tablet, or desktop computer) consumers used to access the agencies’ main website.

In addition, the GAO interviewed officials from the six agencies to gather insights about the challenges consumers might face when accessing government services using their mobile devices.

The GAO found that five of the six agencies have taken substantive steps to improve access to their websites via mobile devices. For example in 2012, the DOT fully redesigned its main website to provide a separate platform for mobile users. Three of the other agencies GAO interviewed have also redesigned their websites to better accommodate mobile devices and the other two agencies have plans to do so.

Of the 6 agencies reviewed by the GAO, only the Federal Maritime Commission had yet to take steps to enhance access to their websites via mobile devices, but plans to enhance access to its website in 2015.

Who Uses Mobile Devices?

Perhaps the most interesting part of the GAO’s report is an accounting of who most often use mobile devices to access websites.

The GAO cites a Pew Research Center report from 2013 showing that certain groups relied on cellphones to access websites than others. In general, PEW found that people who are young, have more income, have graduate degrees, or are African American have the highest rate of mobile access.

In contrast, PEW found that people less likely to use mobile devices to access websites in 2013 included seniors, the less educated, or rural populations. Of course, there are still many rural areas that lack cellphone service, let alone wireless Internet access.

Only 22% of people 65 and older used mobile devices to access the Internet, compared to 85% of younger people. “GAO also found that access to the Internet using cellphones has increased, primarily due to lower cost, convenience, and technical advances,” stated the GAO report.

Specifically, the Pew survey found that:

  • 74% of African Americans use cellphones to access the Internet.
  • 85% of people ages 18 to 29 used cellphones to access the Internet, compared to only 22% of seniors age 65 and older.
  • 79% of those using cellphones to access the Internet have incomes of at least $75,000.
  • Only 50% of people living in rural areas use cellphones to access the Internet.
  • 74% have college degrees or higher, compared to 53% with a high school diploma and 51% without a high school education.

The GAO made no recommendations in relationship to its findings, and issued its report for informational purposes only.