The public sector around the world is experiencing a digital transformation and individuals are turning to government sites for a number of reasons: financial support, registrations, information, and more. So how do website managers cope with increased demand?
Digitalization is becoming an integral part of modern life. Ticketing sales, online retail, academic applications – everything is moving to the online space. That also includes the digitalization of the public sector.
In many ways, this strategy makes public life and civic duties more convenient and efficient. For instance, Estonian citizens can now quickly pay taxes and even vote from home.
Nonetheless, this digital transformation in government has been a challenge, especially with increased demand. As more services move online, so too have citizens, and this has created issues for government websites not prepared for such traffic surges.
It’s imperative that government’s digital transformation can handle surges in demand. Especially since in the past year, it’s been more important than ever that citizens can access various public services safely and securely.
In short, we know that digital technology in the public sector is here to stay.
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1. Why do visitors use public sector websites?
There are a number of reasons people turn to government agencies websites, and we can expect the number to increase with greater public service digitalization.
Applications and registrations
One of the main reasons people go to government sites is to submit applications or registrations for various activities: tax filings, car registrations, blood donorship, among others. These activities can often have a specific starting time or strict deadline meaning waves of traffic hitting sites at set times, potentially affecting website performance and overwhelming the system.
- The state of Hawaii’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) site crashed due to increased use from local drivers.
Additionally, states’ websites in the United States and other public sector sites around the world have seen influxes of visitors applying for financial relief. The added load has been difficult for many websites to cope with.
- Online systems in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Oregon experienced issues maintaining their infrastructure as millions hit their sites to register for unemployment benefits. New York state, in particular, saw a 900% increase in website traffic in just a week.
- The Thai government announced a handout for individuals considered “informal” workers. As a result, nearly 20 million individuals tried to log in and register on the government’s payout website, higher than the 3.5 million anticipated. Even before opening the website, there were nearly two million people on the site, waiting and refreshing the page.
Government and public sector websites are also the focal point for immigration applications and other travel authorizations. Citizens stranded abroad can turn to governments to get approval for controlled re-entry. For instance, minutes after announcing this process, the Jamaican government’s and mobile app website almost instantaneously received 100,000 hits and was automatically shut down as a result.
Trusted sources of information
In reaction to certain news or events, individuals will often turn to government or the public sector because they are considered trustworthy sources of information. Canada’s immigration website crashed following the U.S. presidential vote in 2016 as a result of higher than normal levels of traffic. New Zealand’s immigration website also saw an increase of almost 2,500% in 24 hours from curious Americans.
2. What are the consequences associated with traffic surges?
As government digital transformation becomes more common, so too is the challenge created by this move. With more services offered online, websites visitors tend to follow, overloading websites. These spikes in online traffic can cause serious issues for the public sector. Having worked together with government agencies around the world, these are the effects we’ve observed.
Slowdowns and crashes
One of the major consequences of traffic spikes are website overload, leading to slowdowns and crashes. This can hurt overall operational efficiency as critical services grind to a halt. Crashes are costly and a site outage is not a quick fix. 65% of organizations need over an hour to bring their sites back up and sites with frequent outages experience 16x higher costs. In the meantime, the site outage can also impact staff’s productivity as resources are spend elsewhere.
Frustrated taxpayers and visitors
Public sector website crashes are costly in more ways than one. Downtime also often means an influx of frustrated visitors to phone lines and social media, now left unsure about whether they will be able to receive the support that they need. What’s worse, employees often rely on the same systems as site visitors, only compounding the issue. Additional staff resources must then be spent to assure and inform taxpayers about the situation at hand.
Data security issues
In perhaps the worst-case scenario, an overloaded website can start to fail in other ways and expose sensitive user data. That was the case for the Italian social security website when it received about 100 requests per second, numbers it had previously never seen. As it malfunctioned, the website also began showing users other people's personal details, including names and tax numbers.
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3. How can website managers keep their systems online?
Scale up, with caveats
When preparing for increases in traffic, many website managers turn to scaling up. While this is a good starting point for building in website performance, it’s also a technically difficult and costly process. Scaling servers can be ineffective for older infrastructures and it doesn’t mean all parts of the website can scale equally well. The mechanics behind scaling websites make it tough to maintain performance under increased demand. And with many government websites seeing exponential, traffic peaks, scaling up cannot save their sites fast enough before a slowdown or crash.
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Know your bottlenecks
Website managers might be confident that their site can support thousands of concurrent users, but what happens when that number of visitors are all trying to log in or send in forms simultaneously? Even if government agencies can support that many visitors, having them concentrated on one page could mean the platform is vulnerable to slowdowns and downtime. The best way to understand a website’s true capacity is to run load testing, which will give more realistic data of the traffic levels sites can support during their busiest periods.
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Get help from a virtual waiting room
A virtual waiting room can support government agencies in preventing crashes when it matters most. When demand exceeds capacity, website visitors are placed in an online queue and allowed back onto the site in a first-in, first-out order. Here, managers can also communicate updates clearly to waiting users, creating a feeling of transparency and fairness.
To maintain a secure environment, Queue-it’s virtual waiting room does not collect or have access to any data on end-users and can filter out some forms of fraudulent traffic. Our servers are also located in the European Union and in the United States, in compliance with legal frameworks on storing data.
We at Queue-it understand the challenge associated with the large-scale government digital transformation we’ve been witnessing over the last several years. Our first customer was, in fact, a Danish government website used to renew hunting licenses, and we’ve worked closely with many global public sector organizations since then. We know that digital technology in the public sector is here to stay, and service providers must be prepared for that future.
(This blog has been updated since it was published in May 2020.)