April 3, 2002

The Rise of the E-Citizen: How People Use Government Agencies' Web Sites

Part 2: A closer look at some activities

Health information, taxes, and more

A new urgency for health information

Half of government site users (49%) have sought health and safety advice from government sources. There are no notable demographic differences in this use of government sites. The evenness of demand suggests that the government is a widely trusted authority on health issues.  Even those who trust government the least look for health information as much as do those who trust it the most.

However, we probably have not captured the whole story on this issue.  We finished surveying government site users a week before the nation’s first anthrax death.  Immediately, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Department of Health and Human Services were in the headlines daily as they tried to manage an unprecedented and incalculable health crisis.  A nervous population entering flu season hungered for any scrap of helpful information.  Six months later, anthrax is still on the front page of the CDC web site.7

Pay taxes

Some 16% of those who use government Web sites have filed taxes online, as of late September 2001.  There is a sharp drop-off in participation at the age of 65, where only 3% have done so.  Tax filing is also not something that is done much by those who live in lower income households (those earning less than $30,000), where only 9% of the Internet users from those households file taxes online. 

These facts are perhaps explained in part by current policies related to online tax payments. Taxpayers wanting to e-file federal returns must either pay a preparer who will take care of the electronic filing, or else purchase the software to do so themselves. Efforts by the IRS to permit tax filing at its Web site face opposition from private preparers and software companies. They argue that the IRS would be stepping into the private sector by allowing free e-filing and they cite privacy concerns about the security of information filed online.8

Of those who have filed their taxes online, 70% say it saved them time – roughly 1.5 hours, on average.

Register cars; get driver’s licenses

Visits to the state motor vehicle bureaus often involve long lines and bureaucratic obstacles. Currently, 12% of government Web site users have gotten driver’s licenses or renewed their auto registration online. The people who live in households with high incomes are most like to have sought to renew driver’s licenses or auto registration online – 17% of those in households earning more than $75,000.

We cannot draw firm conclusions as to why so few people have engaged in electronic transactions with the government.  It is generally true throughout the online world that people are much more comfortable getting information than they are in performing transactions. And it appears the government world is no different. We might expect that those who trust government more would be more likely to engage in online transactions with it, but that is not the case. The availability of many government services may be an issue. Automated services may not exist in all states or cities.  Where they do, people may be unaware of them or dubious about sending the personal information required over the Internet. 

Get information about or apply for government benefits

A fifth of those who have used government Web sites have done this. A relatively high proportion of African-Americans have done so – 35%. And it is something that is more popular among those who live in households earning between $30,000 and $50,000 and those with at least a year or two of college education.

Get information about public policy issues

Fully 62% of government Web site users have done this. This is an activity that is most likely to have been performed by those who live in high-income households. And it tends to be something that younger Internet users have done in greater numbers than older Americans.  It is also something that is very popular with the heaviest users of government Web sites.

Get information that helped them decide how to vote

A fifth (21%) of these Internet users have done research at government Web sites that they say has helped them decide how to vote in an election. Men (24%) are more likely than women (18%) to have gotten such crucial information from government Web sites. And Republicans are more likely than Democrats or independent voters to have used this information in assessing how to vote. Some 27% of Republicans have used government Web sites for this purpose, compared to 20% of Democrats and 17% of independents.

What else would they like on government Web sites?

There was a surprisingly modest response in our survey when we asked respondents what other services they would like to receive online from government Web sites. A third of the respondents (32%) said there was nothing more they wanted on Web sites, and 38% said they did not know if they wanted anything else.  The most cited desire was to access Social Security information (9%).9  A few wanted to be able to conduct more transactions, like filing taxes. And the rest generally wanted more information and faster access to Web sites.

Focus groups have been more successful at drawing people out on their wishes. Fairfax County, Virginia found in its focus groups that citizens wanted such specifics as searchable databases of complaints against local businesses and signups for tee-time at the public golf course.10

  1. http://www.cdc.gov/
  2. “IRS Plans to Offer Tax Filing on the Web” The Washington Post. January 26, 2002, p. A6.
  3. Currently, the Social Security Administration Web site (www.ssa.gov) allows citizens to request a benefits statement that is then sent through the mail. While this method is slower, it does provide some privacy protection.
  4. “A Friendlier County Web Site; Focus Groups, Survey Prompt Easier Access” The Washington Post, June 14, 2001, p, T03.