Anyone who’s been watching the Internet knows that a lot of interesting things are happening online with government. Government entities have begun to open up their data to the public, including state, local, and the federal government efforts with websites like data.gov.
A new research report on online government from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project shows that citizens are searching for information in unprecedented numbers. When they visit sites, they’re increasingly making transactions and participating in discussion around policies.
Forty-one percent have gone online to get forms, including tax forms, health forms or student aid forms, and 35 percent have researched government documents or statistics. Roughly one-third of all Internet users reported renewing driver’s licenses and auto registrations online. In general, the use of government websites for information and transactions is nearly ubiquitous among Internet users, with 82 percent of online adults surveyed reporting one of the two activities.
There’s also a change in terms of how people are accessing government information, particularly through social media among traditionally underserved minorities. Nearly one third of U.S. Internet users are using social media and new tools to access government services and information. The three activities heavy users reported doing the most are reading government blogs, signing up for email alerts and watching videos.
Looking for government data
“When we saw that 40 percent of adults have gone online in the last year to look for data about the business of government, that was a really striking finding to us,” said Aaron Smith, the research specialist at the Internet & American Life Project that authored the report. “I think it’s indicative of something that we’ve seen throughout our recent research, which is that people are increasingly going around established intermediaries and they’re going to the source for online data. And then they’re doing that whether it’s data about a health condition that they might have or data about the presidential race, as we saw in the 2008 campaign. Now we’re seeing the same thing in the context of government.”
Citizens are going online to see how federal stimulus money is being spent at Recovery.gov (23 percent of surveyed Internet users), read or download the text of legislation (22 percent), visit a site that provides access to government data (16 percent) or to see campaign contributions to elected officials (14 percent).
Consumption of government social media growing
“We wanted to know whether they were using things like blogs and social networking sites and online video and text messaging to get government information,” said Smith. “What we found was that about one in three online adults were using these tools to get information about the business of government.
Smith said they found that about a quarter of U.S. Internet users have participated in a broader debate around government policies, although much of that is currently occurring outside of the context of “official government channels,” like fan pages and government blogs that are posted on government websites.
Embrace of social media by government has particular appeal for minorities
The report found greater rates of use and participation on government websites and services is associated with higher macroeconomic status. “You see a really different story when you look at engagement using social media in a broad context,” said Smith. “When you look at the percentage of whites, African-Americans and Hispanics who watch videos on government websites or sign up to get text message alerts or follow government agencies on blogs or social networking sites, all three of those groups do those things at basically the same rate. There isn’t the same gap that you see with some other online government offerings. The same is true for high and low-income Americans. There’s a much smaller gap when it comes to those sort of participatory interactive modes of engagement than there are with some of the other online government activities we examined.”
Smith said that this trend was something that they started picking up on during the 2008 election. “Younger adults, minority Americans, those at lower levels of income were very active on these tools, using these tools during the election. I think that’s something that offers a great deal of promise in terms of government thinking about how to reach some of those groups that may not be as served with existing offerings.”
For online users, government is increasingly participatory
The Pew Research report fond that nearly one-quarter of online Americans (23 percent) have participated in the broader online debate over government issues by publishing their own commentary or media, attending an online town hall meeting, or joining an online group focused on influence government policies.
Participation and usage is correlated with Internet access speed, which puts special emphasis on digital divide issues and the premise behind the FCC’s National Broadband Plan.
“When you look at the FCC’s plan, one of the key planks of their rationale for why we need to expand broadband services is to facilitate that citizen to government interaction and broader civic engagement between citizens,” said Smith. “t’s something that we’ve found since we began conducting this research way back in 2000: as people get access to high-speed, always-on connections, it opens up a whole range of activities and services that people can take part in that just aren’t really feasible using a slow dial-up connection or accessing a computer at the library, for instance. It’s been a truism since the day we started this that broadband users and now wireless Internet users are much different in what they do and take part in a much greater range of activities in all areas, whether that’s entertainment, news, health or government, than folks who aren’t online or don’t have access to that type of high speed connection.”
No avoiding death and taxes
“When we asked them the last place they went, not surprisingly, federal agencies sort of led the pack,” said Smith. “About a third of the folks who remembered their most recent interaction said that they went to the website of a federal agency.”
“There were a lot of other sites within the federal government that folks mentioned too,” said Smith, “like Immigration and Naturalization Services, FBI and Department of Homeland Security, CDC and NIH, Veteran’s Administration. We literally got 1,700 responses on this question that ranged across the board, anything you could imagine. It was really indicative of the range of services and the range of agencies that Americans are currently accessing online.”
Visits to government websites are overwhelming successful
In a finding that has positive implications for the ability of government agencies to provide information and transactions, the report showed that a sizable majority of online visitors were able to accomplish their goals.
“That was actually true regardless of what type of site it was, whether it was a local site or a state site or a federal site,” said Smith. “People were generally fairly successful with what they were trying to do. So I think if you’re looking for positives in terms of things that government is doing right, I think that that shows that they’re doing a fairly good job of making information available in a way that’s relevant and meaningful to people.”
Use of government websites for transactions growing rapidly
Eighty-two percent of online adults went to a government website to get information or complete a transaction in the 12 months preceding the survey. Finding information and services were the top two reasons for visits. Increasingly, however, citizens are going to government websites to do things. “That was actually where we saw a lot of growth between the earlier part of the decade and now,” said Smith. “Quite sizable numbers of people are going online to do things like renew driver’s licenses or auto registrations or apply for jobs or pay fines, get recreational licenses like hunting or fishing licenses.”
Despite the increasing ability for citizens to complete transactions online, however, they still want to be able to contact government directly when needed. “If there’s a challenge in all of this, it’s that you can’t really let up anywhere anymore,” said Smith. “People want to have your information and access your services in all kinds of ways. And that includes offline means as well. We saw that very clearly when we asked people how they preferred to get in contact with government.
Among the population as a whole, the telephone remains the number one way people preferred to get in contact. “When you look at the online population, they actually prefer the Internet,” said Smith. “But a sizable number still like to be able to pick up the phone or go see someone in person. Based on previous research that we’ve done, that particularly rises with sort of the urgency and complexity of the issue.”
Smith offered a simple example of where escalation to other methods of communication matters. “I love nothing better than being able to file my taxes online,” said Smith. “But when I was a victim of identity theft and someone began filing fraudulent tax returns in my name, you better believe I wanted to be able to pick up the phone and call somebody and work through that in a person-to-person way. Email is great. Being able to get my license renewed on the website is fantastic. But when there’s a problem, I definitely want to be able to get someone on the line.”
Search is king for finding government information
Search engines are a much more common method for users going online to look for government information or to make transaction, with 44 percent of online users starting with a search engine.
“When we asked this question previously in 2003, we found that search engines were far and away the number one way that folks were reaching their destinations,” said Smith. “We found almost exactly the same thing this time around. Sometimes they’ll go to a place that they saw in a notice or an email or a friend or a family member told them about. But, by and large, if they need to find information on their tax bill, they’ll search tax information or IRS in their search engine of choice and get to their destination that way. So that’s very much inline with what we’ve found in previous years and in other areas of online life as well, which is that the search is generally the default entry point to all sorts of information and other types of activities that people take part in.”
That means search engine optimization (SEO) is an important consideration for government officials, agencies and anyone trying to convey information. In other words, add SEO to the important acronyms to know in government: using search data to connect with citizens online is crucial.
Higher use of government websites led to more trust
Trust in government is at historic lows. The electorate as a whole doesn’t have a much faith in openness and accountability, despite the Open Government Initiative. The Pew Research report found, however, that those who are heavy government data users have different attitudes about government in terms of it being more open and accountable. This differs from people who are not online or people who are online but not heavy government data users. That perception, however, is heavily biased around ideological lines, which gibes with historical trends.
“That fits with some research that our colleagues over at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press put out last week,” said Smith. “They went all the way back to public opinion data as far back as the Eisenhower administration. Basically, what they found is that people tend to trust the government when their party is in power and they tend to distrust it when the other party’s in power.”
“What we see happening is that, at least at the moment, when you look at Democratic voters, they’re giving credit to the government for making that data out there. When you look at Republican voters, they’re a little bit tougher sell. The upshot to government is if you put your data out there, people will clearly use it.”