Editorial: E-bias

E-government initiatives are not easy, but they should not be more difficult than the old processes. The U.S. Postal Service offers a case in point.

When people want to change their addresses online, they must provide a credit card number and they are charged $1. This cost, USPS officials say, adds an element of security to the online form and the dollar pays for the associated credit card fees.

If the same people go into a post office, however, they can fill out the form at no cost — even though an employee must key that data into the system.

Postal Service officials argue that the fee is justified because of the convenience of using the Web and because online users get coupons that offset the cost. Furthermore, they note that more than 1.3 million people used the online service, illustrating, they say, that the fee has not discouraged people.

In fact, assessing the ramifications of the fee is almost impossible. One would assume that more people file paper change-of-address forms — something that apparently does not require the additional security tied to a credit card. The number of people who do that was not immediately available. But it is all but impossible to assess the number of people who did not use an electronic process. Anecdotally, one Federal Computer Week reporter did not use the online process specifically because of the hassle of providing a credit card number and instead resorted to

paper.

In fact, the electronic process can be as convenient for agencies as it is for customers. When users fill out such data, it is generally more accurate.

It is more possible to forge a paper form, for example. Postal Service officials send confirmations to both the new and old addresses, but that again raises the issue of why online users must pay the $1 penalty.

The issue goes beyond the change-of-address forms. There is even a bias to buy stamps. To buy stamps online, users must register. Imagine the reaction if the Postal Service required registration for everybody who bought stamps.

Online processes need to be safe and secure, but agencies should not discourage people from using them.

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