How To Get the E-Government Wrong: The TSA Case

Transportation Security Administration Logo

While there are an array of great things going on currently in e-government in the U.S. government, including a shift to cloud computing, more efforts at using mobile platforms and social media, and efforts to streamline and consolidate the hundreds if not thousands of legacy systems, at the end of the day the way the public still mostly interacts with government digitally is through government agency web sites.

And yet, too many of them remain user-unfriendly and poorly maintained. A case in point is the Transportation Security Administration. I suppose it’s to be expected that the first thing a visitor to www.tsa.gov sees is a picture of a two people holding a puppy. I am sure that has something to do with airport security, but don’t really know or care.

So, as a traveler, I see the “For Travelers” tab and click on it. I don’t know about you, but the main thing I want to know is what are the average security checkpoint wait times at the airports I am traveling through at various times of the day. But there is no link to anything like this. If one types into the TSA site search box “wait times,” a list of 96 links comes up. The first one is a press release from 2004 advertising the new TSA wait time tool. It highlights a link to the tool, but when one clicks on this, up pops a 404 error message.

Sorry, the page you requested was not found.

For a long time the page said, “The Wait Time Calculator is currently under construction. We apologize for the inconvenience while we are working to make the tool more user friendly.” Now it just gives the error message. It’s not as if TSA was not aware of this: just search the web for TSA Wait Time Calculator and you’ll see lots of blog posts by travelers that contacted TSA to complain or ask for more information.

Hitting the button to see more results, the search picks up mostly more press releases from TSA officials about what they are doing on wait times. However, 5 links down is something that looks promising: “My TSA Mobile,” which is a crowd sourced mobile app that lets people put in and find wait times. Only, one problem: type in LAX and you have someone who posted a wait time from 2 days ago. Type in IAD and not only do 2 airports come up, but for Dulles the wait times are similarly out of date. Even if “My TSA” were a useful tool, which it does not appear to be (at least yet), how would a traveler be expected to find it? For there is no link to it or even information about it on the “For Travelers” home page. It’s not even under the Customer Service page, or even on the “Travel Links” page. It just appears to exist on its own on the TSA site with no pointers to it.

Look, the reality here is that if TSA were a company that had to make money on how easily people could find information and navigate around the web site (like Amazon, Google, and so many other companies do), it would have gone out of business long ago.

So here’s are two suggestions. First, as we wrote in “What’s Next for Open Government” the federal government should publish the rankings of all federal web sites from most to least popular. Second, they should require all web pages to have a link that says “I like this page” or “I don’t like this page,” and they should publicize this data in real time. Then perhaps embarrassment over poorly designed and maintained web sites will drive agencies to get with the program.

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About the author

Dr. Robert D. Atkinson is one of the country’s foremost thinkers on innovation economics. With has an extensive background in technology policy, he has conducted ground-breaking research projects on technology and innovation, is a valued adviser to state and national policy makers, and a popular speaker on innovation policy nationally and internationally. He is the author of "Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage" (Yale, forthcoming) and "The Past and Future of America’s Economy: Long Waves of Innovation That Power Cycles of Growth" (Edward Elgar, 2005). Before coming to ITIF, Atkinson was Vice President of the Progressive Policy Institute and Director of PPI’s Technology & New Economy Project. Ars Technica listed Atkinson as one of 2009’s Tech Policy People to Watch. He has testified before a number of committees in Congress and has appeared in various media outlets including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NPR, and NBC Nightly News. He received his Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1989.