May 3, 2004

Harnessing E-Government: A Primer on Citizen Habits

The July 2003 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project shows that 97 million adult Americans, or 77% of Internet users, took advantage of e-gov in 2003, whether that meant going to government Web sites or emailing government officials. This represented a growth of 50% from 2002. At the same time, citizens who contact government said they are more likely to turn to traditional means – either the telephone or in-person visits – rather than the Web or email to deal with government. Of the 54% of Americans who contacted government in the past year, the telephone or in-person visits were preferred to the Web or email by a 53% to 37% margin. Campaigners have always tried to reach voters in order to win elections. Citizens have always tried to read campaigns in order to vote their interests. The Internet seems to offer a great two-way conduit for campaigners and citizens, with plenty of room for third parties to provide context and commentary as well. Some are making good on the vision of a lively online political discourse pegged to elections. But at the milestone of the 2002 midterm elections, the evidence shows that political cyberspace was populated mostly by tentative campaigners and wandering citizens. The major portals of Web traffic played a late, mild, yet remarkably sophisticated role in the proceedings. Some 22% of Internet users searched the Internet for campaign news during the 2002 mid-term election, but they were somewhat less successful in finding political information online than users who search online for information about health care or commercial products. This report was done in conjunction with Michael Cornfield of the Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet The George Washington University.