Study: More Americans become e-citizens
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The number of Americans seeking information from government Web sites increased by 70 percent, rising to 68 million people, within the last two years, according to a study released Wednesday.
Researchers ascribe the sharp increase to the growth of the overall Internet population, greater experience among Web users who are going beyond e-mail and game playing, and an increase in the number of government Web sites.
However, some technology-use experts said the spike in accessing these Web sites is not an indication of improved usability or the availability of pertinent information such as agency work notes or inspections.
Users primarily access government sites to gather tourism information, conduct research for school projects or download government forms, according to the study conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a Washington nonprofit organization that explores how the Internet affects American life. The results come from a January survey of almost 2,400 people.
In a separate survey in September, few of the 815 people polled for a more in-depth assessment about specific Internet use said they use Web sites to access services. Last fall, 16 percent of the e-citizens used government Web sites to file their taxes, and 12 percent renewed automobile registration online.
The research revealed that most of the people -- 52 percent -- who access government Web sites have less than a college education. The other 48 percent have college or graduate degrees.
"That's just a reflection of a change in the online population," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "The typical user is no longer a young, white man, highly educated with lots of money. The Internet population is now more like America."
Other findings include:
The survey found that users visit federal and state Web sites most often, and 76 percent of those people rated them as excellent or good. Less than half of the respondents, 41 percent, use the Web sites of local municipalities.
"Part of the reason for that is resources," Rainie said. "Local governments have less money to play with. Relatively large or well-to-do local governments probably have good Web sites.
"It is also a reflection of demand. In a county that isn't particularly wired up, there might not be much demand for a county Web site."
Critics: E-government lacks infrastructure
But the existence of federal and state sites and the amount of content on them is not an indication of depth or appreciable usability, said Gary Bass, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget Watch, a government watchdog group that monitors activity of the White House's Office of Management and Budget.
"There's no doubt that people are getting more involved with the government on the Internet to meet their needs, but my question is whether e-government is providing a way to access information, " Bass said. "Sure you might be able to do license renewals.
"But there is no infrastructure underneath it to get information. There are no business federal identification numbers that would allow you to get SEC, OSHA and EPA findings on a company."
Information of that type would be more useful, Bass said, than learning what an agency does or who its leaders are. A bill that U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Connecticut, has proposed seeks to create greater usability and linkage of information between agencies, Bass said.
"The demand is increasing for government to be more accessible," Bass said. "But the way that demand is met is with glitzy services like e-filing [for taxes] or accessing information on a Social Security account."
But Ari Schwartz, an associate director at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a public policy agency that seeks to promote democratic values and constitutional liberties in the digital age, said he does not expect to see an increase in the availability of government information on the Web for two reasons.
"The Bush administration, and the president chief among them, has said from the beginning of the term that it wants to keep more information secret, especially during the deliberative process. We've seen that happen already with Enron," Schwartz said. "And now there are concerns about terrorism. Some of that is legitimate, and some is an overreaction."
Academicians and activists said they were concerned that interaction with government Web sites might make citizens think more like customers seeking a service instead of participants in forming government policy.
But Schwartz said that has not been the case.
"There is more of an increase of people using the Internet to participate in the democratic process," he said. "The FTC received 33,000 responses about regulations on a telemarketing do-not-call list. And with banking regulations, the FDIC has gotten hundreds of thousands of comments, and in the past they might have received only hundreds."
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