April 3, 2002

The Rise of the E-Citizen

68 million Americans have gained new access to government services and information via the Web and email

WASHINGTON – Sixty-eight million Americans have used the Web sites of government agencies, a figure up from 40 million such users two years ago. They exploit their new access to government in wide-ranging ways, finding information to further their civic, professional, and personal lives.

Some also use government Web sites to apply for benefits, engage public officials, and complete transactions such as filing taxes.

Overall, 60% of government Web site users say such sites had improved their interactions with at least one level of government: 49% of these online Americans said the Internet had improved the way they interact with the federal government, 45% said it had improved the way they interact with state government and 30% said it had improved the way they interacted with local government.

“The growth of e-government in recent years has a clear payoff with citizens,” says Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which issued a report called “The rise of the e-citizen: How people use government Web sites.” “One of the best ways for government agencies to improve the way they deal with constituents – and their standing with constituents – is to create a good, wide-ranging, interactive Web site.”

While many government site users focus on their personal needs in dealing online with government agencies, there is abundant evidence that a new “e-citizenship” is taking hold:

  • 42 million Americans have used government Web sites to research public policy issues.
  • 23 million Americans have used the Internet to send comments to public officials about policy choices.
  • 14 million have used government Web sites to gather information to help them decide how to cast their votes.
  • 13 million have participated in online lobbying campaigns. The environment, education, and health care top the list of issues for these cyber-activists.

    Tourist and recreational information was the dot-govs” most sought-after content, pulling in almost four out of five government site users. Research for work or school claimed a respectable second place, drawing 70% of users to government sites. Half of those who visited government sites had gone to get health or safety information, suggesting that the government is seen as a dependable broker of such data. (That number may well have increased since the anthrax attacks of last fall.)

    “Internet users are finding that government sites – like government itself – address a diversity of interests,” said Elena Larsen, the principal author of the new report. “Some people think of government as a tax collector or law enforcer, but it turns out that 53 million people are using dot-gov sites to plan their vacations.”

    The findings in this report come from several surveys by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The figures about the overall group of Internet users who go to government Web sites come from a phone poll of 2,391 people taken in January 2002. The more in-depth assessment of how people use government Web sites comes from a survey of 815 people who had told us in previous surveys that they used government Web sites. This separate survey was conducted between September 5 and 27, 2001.

    The Pew Internet & American Life Project is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization that examines the impact of the Internet on civic and political life, families, communities, health care, education, and the workplace. It is fully funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.