May 24, 2004

How Americans Get in Touch With Government

Part 1. Introduction

The recurring theme of “reinvention” in American government has in recent years been fueled by the desire to employ networked communication technologies to enhance government’s capacities.

Electronic government, or e-government, has come to refer not just to Web pages of government agencies and government officials using email, but also to the Internet’s transactional and interactive capabilities as means to better governance. Various definitions of e-government talk about information technologies as building blocks to improve government’s responsiveness to citizens, as well as how these technologies should encourage government officials to rethink service delivery, improving some processes and replacing others.

“The true test of a good government is its ability to produce good administration.” – Alexander Hamilton

As the Internet revolution began to gain steam in the 1990s, e-government started to attract the attention of government officials. However, electronic interactions and applications utilized by government and citizens lagged behind similar developments in the commercial sector.2 By the late 1990s, government agencies began to see the potential of networked information technologies to improve government operations. Yet, the e-gov applications that existed were oriented mainly towards information provision – for example, “brochure” Web pages featured information from publications that were already available offline in print.

Still, online government information and applications have proved fairly popular with Internet users. When the Pew Internet & American Life Project first began conducting surveys in March 2000, 47% of Internet users, or 40 million adult Americans, said they had sought information at a state, local, or federal government Web site. By the end of 2002, this number had risen to 66 million Americans, or 56% of Internet users. The nature of people’s online e-gov activity was oriented towards a wide range of information-seeking. Respondents reported that they were most likely to go to sites with the following kinds of information: getting tourism and recreational information, doing research or work for school, downloading government forms, finding what services a government agency provides, and seeking information about public policy and other issues of interest.

Deeper types of online contacts with government have become increasingly evident among Internet users. This is attributable at least in part to the growing sophistication of Internet users and more easy-to-use Web sites provided by governments. Our September 2001 survey showed that 20% of Internet users who had gone to government Web sites had sought out information on how to apply for government benefits, 12% had renewed a driver’s license or car registration online, and 7% had renewed a professional license. The result of expanding supply and demand for e-gov has been rising expectations among Internet users with respect to e-government. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of Internet users said in a September 2002 Pew Internet Project survey that they would expect to find government information online, and about as many Americans (Internet users and non-users alike) said they would turn to the Internet next when they need government information as say they would use the telephone.

The goal of this report is to explore the different ways in which people contact government and the factors that are associated with success.

With people increasingly turning to e-government for basic and vital purposes in mind, it is important to continue to benchmark what people do when they turn to e-government, and to assess e-government contacts in the broader context of how people get in touch with government. This report does that in three ways by:

  • analyzing the means by which people contact government and how they fare with those means;
  • examining the specific problems people encounter when they contact government via the Web, the telephone, or by email;
  • probing more deeply than the Pew Internet Project has in the past into what people do when they seek out government information online.
  1. C. Richard Neu, Robert H. Anderson, Tora K. Bikson, Sending Your Government a Message: E-mail Communication Between Citizens and Government. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1999.