Kelman: The e-gov pulse

The first message is Google rules, while only a handful had even heard of FirstGov

I teach one case study on e-government in my public management survey course each year. I decided to get feedback from my students on how they search for information on the Web, what sites they prefer and why.

The first message is Google rules. I asked the students (this was at tax time) to go to the Web and find information about filing taxes. More than half of the class went to Google first — more than twice as many as the number who first visited the Internal Revenue Service's Web site, www.irs.gov. Of those who went to Google first, about three-quarters clicked through from Google to the IRS site, making that site the ultimate information source for about 80 percent of the class.

This suggests that Web managers need to configure sites that will come up high in the list of Google hits because that is where most young people go for information.

Only two students went to FirstGov to find tax information, and only four had heard of the site — and they are public policy students. I think students don't know the URLs of many Web sites so they rely on Google.

As part of the case study, I also asked students to imagine they were owners of a dry-cleaning business who wanted information about the government regulations that apply to them. I asked them to compare Regulations.gov and Google as information sources.

More than 80 percent liked Google better, out of those with a preference for one over the other. They preferred Google because it had state regulations information and nongovernment resources, such as trade associations. They said Regulations.gov had lots of specific regulations from different agencies, but no user-friendly compilation. The large number of Google hits — l.7 million using the keywords "dry cleaners federal regulations," which I had tried — didn't faze them because they said they only looked at the results high on the list.

We had a discussion in class about whether government Web sites should accept ads as a revenue source. I asked whether rental car companies should be allowed to advertise on the same Web sites where people make national park reservations.

The class was split, but, a bit to my surprise, a slight majority said they would favor advertising as a funding source. The majority, however, voted against a more radical option — offering the opportunity, for example, for the rental car company that bid the highest to become "the official rental car company of the National Parks" and allowing people reserving campsites to go directly to the company's site to make car reservations.

In the past two years, the proportion of students who believe that the government has become Web-savvy has increased.

Two years ago, I asked a different class whether they could post comments on Environmental Protection Agency regulations on the Web, find air pollution information by ZIP code and/or reserve campsites at a national park. Then, only 13 percent thought you could do all three, which you could, even two years ago. This year, 37 percent thought you could.

Kelman is a professor of public management at Harvard University's Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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