But study says rise in user fees widens digital divide
Government agencies have put substantially more information online during the past year and made that information easier to find by creating Web portals, a Brown University researcher says.
But agencies have been much slower to offer services online, according to political science professor Darrell West. As a result, they lag well behind the commercial sector when it comes to Web interactivity, including the ability to accept credit card payments via the Internet.
A survey of 1,680 state and federal Web sites shows that e-government has generally "made good progress over the past year." But privacy, security, interactivity and "democratic outreach" remain challenges, West said in a report released Sept. 10.
A new trend is for agencies to charge user fees when citizens want to access public information via the Internet. The practice may be helpful for agencies that are short of cash, but it "exacerbates the digital divide between rich and poor," West wrote in his report, "State and Federal E-Government in the United States, 2001." West said a number of judicial Web sites charge fees for filing forms online when the same forms filed on paper are free. Federal Reserve banks also charge fees for providing access to information, and the U.S. Postal Service charges fees for electronic services.
Federal agencies are more likely to charge user fees than are states. Nineteen percent of the federal sites surveyed charged fees, compared with 12 percent of the sites in Indiana and Kansas, 9 percent in Maine and Nebraska, and 8 percent in Maryland.
On the information side, government Web sites offer substantially more access to publications and databases than they did a year ago: 93 percent of the surveyed sites now provide access to publications vs. 74 percent in 2000. And 54 percent offer access to agency databases, compared with 42 percent last year.
The development of online portals over the past year offers "a tremendous advantage for ordinary citizens," West said. Portals provide a central Web location to find information and services from many other sites.
Agencies have also gotten better about providing such basic information as agency telephone numbers and ad.dresses, West said.
But in the realm of "fully executable online service delivery," agencies made only a little progress. This year, 25 percent of the Web sites examined offered online services—up from 22 percent a year ago. "Fully executable" online services are those in which a transaction can be completed online.
One-third of federal agency Web sites offer some form of online service. Among the most advanced states, the percentage is a bit higher: 41 percent for California, 39 percent for Pennsylvania, 38 percent for Indiana and 35 percent for Ohio, Arizona and Michigan. The most common online transaction is the ability to file taxes online. That function is offered by 85 state and federal Web sites. Other online transactions include ordering publications, filing complaints, registering or renewing vehicle registrations, and ordering hunting and fishing licenses.
Although it is common for commercial sites to let customers pay for goods or services online with credit cards, that is still rare with government sites. Only 10 percent of the sites surveyed accepted credit card payments. Rarer still is the use of digital signatures. Although they are now recognized as legally binding, only six of the 1,680 sites make use of digital signatures, the survey found.
West created a 100-point scale to meas.ure e-government progress in the federal government and the states. Rankings on the scale were based on the inclusion of 22 features on agency Web sites, which ranged from including telephone contact numbers to offering audio and video clips. Foreign language access, disability access, the inclusion of privacy and security policies, a site index, transactions and the ability to pay with credit cards were also among the elements considered.
Overall, federal Web sites fared better than state sites on the ranking scale, according to West. Top-rated sites include the Food and Drug Administration's, which achieved a ranking of 87; the Agriculture Department, which scored 78; the Federal Communications Commission at 76; the Department of Housing and Urban Development with 75; and the Internal Revenue Service, which earned 72.
By comparison, the top-ranked states were Indiana, 52; Michigan, 51; Texas, 51; Tennessee, 49; Washington, 48; and California, 46.
How agencies scored
Rated on a scale from one to 100, these federal agency Web sites fared best:
Food and Drug Administration 87
Agriculture Department 78
Federal Communications Commission 76
Department of Housing and Urban Development 75
Internal Revenue Service 72
Defense Department 71
Education Department 71
Consumer Product Safety Commission 70
Small Business Administration 70
Social Security Administration 68
U.S. Postal Service 68
The lowest five scores—ranging from 24 to 38—came from federal appeals courts.
. Source: Brown University
NEXT STORY: How to save money on home insurance