April 27, 2010

Government Online

40% of internet users go online for data about
government spending and activities

31% of online adults use social media and other new
tools to access government services and information,
and the embrace of social media by government is
especially appreciated by African-Americans and Hispanics

Washington, DC (April 27, 2010) – Government agencies have begun to open up their data to the public, and a surprisingly large number of citizens are showing interest. Some 40% of adult internet users have gone online for raw data about government spending and activities. This includes anyone who has done at least one of the following: look online to see how federal stimulus money is being spent (23% of internet users have done this); read or download the text of legislation (22%); visit a site such as data.gov that provides access to government data (16%); or look online to see who is contributing to the campaigns of their elected officials (14%).

“Government interactions in the information age are often fueled by data,” said Aaron Smith, a Research Specialist at the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and author of a report based on a new national phone survey. “Online citizens can—and often do—‘go to the source’ in their efforts to monitor government activities, evaluate the impacts of new legislation, and track the flow of their tax dollars.”

The report  also finds that 31% of online adults have used social tools such as blogs, social networking sites, and online video as well as email and text alerts to keep informed about government activities. Moreover, these new tools show particular appeal to groups that have historically lagged in their use of other online government offerings—in particular, minority Americans. Latinos and African Americans are just as likely as whites to use these tools to keep up with government, and are much more likely to agree that government outreach using these channels makes government more accessible and helps people be more informed about what government agencies are doing.

“Just as social media and just-in-time applications have changed the way Americans get information about current events or health information, they are now changing how citizens interact with elected officials and government agencies,” said Smith. “People are not only getting involved with government in new and interesting ways, they are also using these tools to share their views with others and contribute to the broader debate around government policies.”

These are among the key findings of a new report aimed at understanding how the internet is changing the way Americans get government information and interact with public agencies. The report is based on a nationally representative telephone survey using landline and cell phones of 2,258 adults ages 18 and older. Among the other major findings of this report:

For many online Americans, government is now a participatory activity. Nearly one-quarter of online Americans (23%) have participated in the broader online debate over government issues by posting their own commentary or multimedia content online, participating in an online town hall meeting or joining a group online that tries to influence government policies.

Use of government websites for information and transactions is nearly ubiquitous among internet users. Fully 82% of online adults went to a government website to get information or complete a transaction in the twelve months preceding the Pew Internet survey—a group we refer to as online government users. Some of the specific activities in which these internet users took part include:

  • 48% of internet users have looked for information about a public policy or issue online with their local, state or federal government
  • 46% have looked up what services a government agency provides
  • 41% have downloaded government forms
  • 35% have researched official government documents or statistics
  • 33% have renewed a driver’s license or auto registration
  • 30% have gotten recreational or tourist information from a government agency
  • 25% have gotten advice or information from a government agency about a health or safety issue
  • 23% have gotten information about or applied for government benefits
  • 19% have gotten information about how to apply for a government job
  • 15% have paid a fine, such as a parking ticket
  • 11% have applied for a recreational license, such as a fishing or hunting license

Offline avenues for government engagement still retain their relevance. Even as large numbers of citizens are turning to online avenues in their interactions with government, offline modes of engagement remain relevant and important. More than half of online government users (56%) also contacted a government agency or official using offline means such as telephone, letter or in-person contact in the twelve months preceding our survey. Moreover, 35% of Americans prefer using the telephone when they have a problem or question that requires them to get in touch with government.

Government website interactions tend to start at a search engine and end in a successful outcome. Among respondents who could recall their last government website interaction, 44% used a search engine to figure out where they needed to go—making search a much more common starting point than recommendations from friends and family members or government publications and notices. Once they reached their destination, half of these website visitors (51%) said that they were able to accomplish everything they set out to do, and an additional 28% were able to accomplish most of their objectives. Just 5% said that their most recent government website visit was completely unsuccessful.


This report is based on data from telephone interviews conducted by Princeton Survey Research International between November 30, 2009, and December 27, 2009. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 2.4 percentage points. For results based internet users (n=1,676) the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.