Kelman: Google still rules

For Harvard students, Google is the default option for finding even government information

Last year I asked my 20-something master’s degree students various questions about e-government while I taught a case study on the topic. I taught a similar e-government case study this year, and I can report some things old and some things new.

Steve Kelman This year I asked the students a question that I hadn’t asked earlier: How many times did they use a government Web site in the past year?

The answer: A lot.

Of the U.S. students in the class, all of them reported that they had visited a government Web site at one time or another. About 45 students reported using government Web sites five times or more during the previous year, and three had visited a .gov Web site between one and three times.

Every student in the class who has a student loan filed the application online. Foreign students were considerably less likely to have visited government Web sites, including those in their own country, five times or more. But 11 of them had, and four had visited such a site as many as four times.

But like last year, only about 10 percent of the students knew it was possible to do all three of the following activities online: reserve a campsite at a national park, find out air pollution by ZIP code and comment on an Environmental Protection Agency regulation. In fact, 25 percent thought those kinds of services were not available online.

Moreover, FirstGov, the federal government’s Web portal, is sliding even further into oblivion in student consciousness. Only six of 60 students in the class had ever heard of the site. Only one had ever used it, and she is a former federal employee who used it for benefits information.

The only good news for FirstGov is that after I showed the home page — I also showed them the “Pinky” public service ad for FirstGov, featuring the old lady with her poodle — half of the students said they would be likely to use it. The other half still said they’d be unlikely to do so.

As I reported last year, Google rules. No one in the class disagreed when one student said Google is the default option for information. I had asked students before class to search for information on filing a tax return. Ten of them went to the IRS Web site first, but 23 visited Google first. Twenty of those 23 went to IRS.gov from there.

I also asked them to compare Google with Business.gov as a source of information about government regulations for a small-business drycleaner. Ten students said Google was better than the government site. Another 10 said they were about the same. And nobody said Business.gov was better.

One student made the interesting comment that people her age were so accustomed to using Google that they have mastered the rules for navigating it to find the gold they need among hundreds of thousands of hits.

One change of sentiment between results from this year and last is noteworthy. In both years, I asked whether students thought it was acceptable to allow paid advertising from private companies, such as from a rental car firm on a national parks Web site. Last year, most students were opposed. This year, by a 3-to-1 margin, students were in favor. They were more worried about allowing political ads on a Web site — for the National Rifle Association, for example — than commercial ads.

Kelman is a professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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