In the world of online social interaction, having direct e-access to government resources, information and administrative tasks is a must, especially when thinking of the large and always increasing numbers of Internet users. Regardless of gender, age and race, people move online, search to get their information quick to then process it, respond to it and use it to improve their lives.
With America’s over 60% of adults being Internet users, it makes sense to see the US Government put so much effort and financial resources in online interactions. And the results of their efforts, how they affected citizens and the reactions they’ve generated have been recently quantified in a recent report published by Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project based on a telephone survey conducted between November 30 and December 27, 2009, among a sample of 2,258 adults, age 18 and older.
According to the report, almost all of America’s netizens interacted online in one way or another with government agencies in the past 12 months. Granted, most of them were there do download forms, get generic information or do some other personal tasks, yet 40% of visitors were interested in raw data about what the government has been doing and how they have been spending their money. The most frequent activities described as online interactions are extremely relevant at this point:
- 48% of internet users have looked for information about a public policy or issue online with their local, state or federal government46% 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
With great talks about interactions, citizen empowerment and reviewing what the government has been doing, the truth of the matter is that while they are information hungry on all possible channels, from websites to blogs and Twitter streams, very few US citizens also engage in conversations using government powered channels. The most comments are posted on social networks, while very few publish their views on blogs.
As the study cleverly points out, netizens prefer other channels, mainly less official ones to debate current issues, policies and governmental decisions and action plans. With a majority truly believing government officials are more accessible online, the fact that open debate and idea flow still occurs elsewhere speaks for itself.
Another important aspect is the fact that many US citizens still prefer face to face meetings or phone calls to get their information. Moreover, those getting their information online still feel the need to use other channels to help build a better picture of what they need to find out. Problem solving is still at its best via phone, not online.
If you’re wondering how most users get to their information, it is not via the text messages, email alerts or social media following. Most of them rely on good old web search: “Fully 44% of those who could remember the last government website they visited found that site by conducting an online search.”
It is easy to conclude that the bottom line is that government online presence is limited. It fails to provide all the details people need, it fails to provide an engaging platform for open debate and it not really memorable, as people have a hard time remembering the site they visited and still need to search first and visit later.
While the US is leading in online government transparency and the number of tasks people can actually complete remotely, such as filling out forms, renewing and applying for licenses, downloading information and contacting representatives of the institutions they want to start a dialogue with, they are still far from making full use of what the social web has to offer in what conversations and relationship building is concerned.
The data from this report does accomplish one thing, especially if you stop reading after the outline. It makes the government look good and it validates their efforts towards online availability and transparency.
However, the initial phone survey failed to answer extremely important questions. Yes, they did ask how people see government efforts, how they feel about them. But they did not ask what US citizens would like to see done next. What they need to trust online sources. What would encourage them to express their thoughts directly on the official websites. And while they often ask what, where and how, they almost never ask why. Aren’t the reasons behind all the data as important as the numbers and percentages?