Not out of the woods yet
- By Judi Hasson
- Jun 07, 2004
E-government apparently suffers from an affliction familiar to many new business ventures: It's a great idea, but bad marketing hampers its use.
In a first-of-its-kind study to measure public awareness and the effectiveness of three of the 24 e-government initiatives — a cornerstone of President Bush's efforts to improve public services through e-government — a nationwide poll found that most Americans do not turn to the government for information, not even for information about national parks. But when they do, they say they find the online services useful and are surprised at the depth of the information offered.
The three initiatives are Recreation.gov, which offers information on national and state parks, and outdoor activities; GovBenefits.gov, which offers visitors the ability to search if they are eligible for federal benefits; and the Internal Revenue Service's Free File site, a free tax preparation and tax information service for people who meet certain requirements, generally those with lower incomes.
This summer marks the third year in the Bush administration's effort to get agencies to use electronic services to work more efficiently and improve citizen services, one of the initiatives of the President's Management Agenda.
E-government, according to the agenda, will "make it simpler for citizens to receive high-quality service from the federal government, while reducing the cost of delivering those services."
But the survey found that many Americans had not yet visited some of the better known government Web sites, such as Whitehouse.gov, NASA.gov and IRS.gov.
People are even less familiar with newer government Web sites. Only 11 percent said they have visited Recreation.gov even though more than half of the survey respondents said they had visited a national or state park or been involved in outdoor activities in the past year — activities about which Recreation.gov offers information.
Only one in 12 surveyed said they had visited GovBenefits.gov, although one-third of all respondents said they had looked into government benefits for themselves or someone they knew.
And only 22 percent of citizens had heard about Free File — the Web site that allows taxpayers to calculate and pay their taxes online for free — despite a heavy advertising campaign by IRS
The low percentage of Americans who know about the sites indicates that the government needs to do more to pitch their usefulness, e-government experts said.
"The government has come a long way in terms of building good, functional sites," said Dan Chenok, former chief of the information technology policy branch at the Office of Management and Budget who is now vice president for policy and management strategies at SRA International Inc. "The government could continue to improve how it gets word out about the sites."
Darrell West, director of Brown University's Taubman Center for Public Policy, has conducted research on government Web sites and said the survey shows that citizens are going online to get information, but "there needs to be much greater advertising of government" sites.
Government Web sites are not huge successes, according to G. Evans Witt, chief executive officer of Princeton Survey Research Associates International. "There is a huge potential for these [e-government] sites to be heavily used by Americans," he said. "But the government is going to have to find a way to tell Americans to come on over to these sites."
Karen Evans, administrator for e-government and IT at OMB, said federal officials are aware that a marketing campaign is essential to drawing more users. In fact, General Services Administration officials are working to develop a plan to promote the Web sites. For example, they secured more than $9 million in free advertising time to publicize GovBenefits.gov and create recognition for the service.
To effectively advertise, she said, officials first must identify the sites' customer base, which can be tough to do for those such as Recreation.gov because the target audience is so diverse.
"Take the IRS," Evans said. "They have a good marketing plan. They know who their base is. Everybody has to file their taxes. And they know exactly who the folks are who are eligible for the Free File piece of the program, and they can do a marketing plan to get them."
The search is on
But for most government Web sites, the audience is not so clear. Many survey respondents said they came across a Web site through commercial Web search sites such as Google or Yahoo.
That's the case for Scott Chilton, a contractor in Joppa, Md., who started using the Internet only a year ago.
"With today's technology, everybody is on the Web," Chilton said. "I'm pretty much an old carpenter who builds houses and is trying to catch up to the 21st century."
He has used the Internet to find home-building regulations in three states, and he stumbled upon Recreation.gov while surfing the Web, where he can find out the depths of boating channels and waterways before taking out his 24-foot power boat. "Everything can be updated on Recreation.gov, and that's important because the coastline changes so much," he said.
Like Chilton, most Americans say they find the information on government Web sites useful — once they find them. According to the survey, more than half of all respondents said they would visit GovBenefits.gov now that they know it allows people to find out if they are eligible for certain government benefits, including mortgage loans and health coverage.
Nearly all of them said they found the site useful, although half were just looking for any Web site with government benefits information.
More than one-third of those who visited GovBenefits.gov discovered it via a Google search. That includes David Leaver, a management consultant in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., who recently started surfing the Web and is surprised by the information he can find.
"I do go to government Web sites," Leaver said. "I've done research on regulations, but I never knew Recreation.gov existed. I bet I could ask 10 people about Recreation.gov, and not one will know about it."
Now that he knows where to look, Leaver said, he will use the site to plan his next vacation. "I think it brings it all together," he said. "You have it in one spot."
One channel among many
With 60 percent of Americans unable to name a Cabinet-level agency of the federal government, Web sites such as FirstGov must be easy for the public to navigate without knowing which agency or level of government offers a particular service, according to Teresa Nasif, executive sponsor of USA Services, an e-government program that helps citizens find government information and services.
"We want FirstGov.gov to be as well-known to each American as their own e-mail address," Nasif said. She said it typically takes new Web sites several years to "penetrate the average American's consciousness with a new brand." FirstGov officials are spending $1 million on advertising, but she said it still takes time to build recognition.
Government officials have their work cut out for them. Shirley Irwin, who lives in Bedford, Pa., does not log on to a computer often, but once the retired bank teller found out about Recreation.gov, she uses it to find out where to camp with her recreational vehicle at national parks.
However, she voiced concerns about the trade-off between getting information and protecting her privacy. "I think it's probably the wave of the future," she said. "But I think people have too much access to everything.... There [are] a lot of things in life that I think we should keep private. But I do think it's the wave of the future."
Beverly Thorne of Sherman, Texas, is a tentative Web user, too. She is aware of government sites, including the White House Web site. "If I thought I could voice an opinion to the White House, I would use it," said Thorne, who has only used government sites to find out about her Social Security benefits.
"Any other avenue of communications with government offices is pretty difficult," she said. "If they would provide the right information and let it become a tool that I can use to make my life better, then it's good."
IRS officials have spent the past five years pushing e-filing, advertising the service via direct mail and including flyers in tax return envelopes.
The campaign paid off. An estimated 60 million taxpayers filed electronically this year, a 15.5 percent increase over the previous year, according to the IRS' latest statistics. But that success came with a price tag of
$15 million for fiscal 2004, which includes all of the agency's advertising, such as TV, radio and online ads and direct mail, according to an IRS spokesman.
Nearly half of the people surveyed know they can pay their taxes online. About one-fifth of all taxpayers know an IRS Web site offers links to free filing services that also can calculate taxes. However, only 23 percent had actually visited the IRS' E-file Web site.
The goal is to provide "one interaction between the government and the citizen," said Mark Forman, the former e-government executive who championed government-to-citizen e-services. "It's a transaction-based approach, and [agencies] simplified that and put additional features into it."
Despite the challenges of interacting with the public, the government is heading in the right direction, said Kate Quick, a resident of Alameda, Calif., who is going right along with e-government.
As president of the local League of Women Voters chapter, she often refers people to government Web sites when they need information and are not computer savvy. "I think it's wonderful," she said. "It's a pain in the wazoo to go to a government office. Since [Sept. 11, 2001], it's even worse. Everybody has a lot of security, and you have to go through a lot of hoops. It's not always comfortable or user friendly."
Not only that, Quick said, government offices have employees who don't want to help customers when it's close to lunch or closing time. "Time is definitely money," she said. "Having that ability from home and 24/7, you can get the information you need whenever you need it, and you don't have to go anywhere."
OMB and other agency officials recognize that they need to provide multiple ways for citizens to interact with government agencies while ensuring they get the same information no matter what method they use, Evans said. USA Services is so far the leader in this area, linking the governmentwide FirstGov Web portal, a toll-free phone service, in-person centers and mail services.
Officials hope others learn from the way USA Services leaders regularly evaluate and seek feedback on how well their services are meeting citizens' needs, Evans said.
"We need to really get focused on the best way to get customer feedback," she said. "The type of discipline that [USA Services] has on that is something we plan to bring to the other initiatives."
Still a tough sell
There are still plenty of skeptics about government Web sites. Two-thirds of those surveyed said they didn't have any reason to visit GovBenefits.gov, even though many Americans receive at least one type of government benefit. More than half of the respondents said they haven't visited Recreation.gov because they didn't need information about national or state parks. And about half of those surveyed said they found IRS.gov while searching for any Web site with information about filing taxes.
E-government officials may never convince people like Robert Altobelli, an unemployed printer from Rochester, N.Y. Altobelli tried using government Web sites to find a job but had no luck.
"The links didn't get me where I wanted to go," he said. "You fill out a bunch of information and get to the end, and somehow [your application] doesn't get
Altobelli said he would still rather get the information over the phone. He said he doesn't have an answering machine, VCR, microwave or computer.
Other people need additional help to make e-government work for them. Roland Crawford, an 80-year-old retired sales manager from Thousand Palms, Calif., is blind. He relies on his wife to browse government Web sites because he can only use a voice-activated computer. Still, he agrees that it's acceptable for the government to spend money on e-services.
"We used it this year for information on Medicare," Crawford said. "We looked up information on the IRS [site] to find out what the changes were. It was very helpful."
Many Internet users say they'd like to send messages to the government, especially members of Congress, and make sure that someone is listening to their needs. Thorne, the retired Texas bank teller, said she planned to sit down at her computer before the upcoming November election to find a "reliable, unbiased source of information on the candidates, and there probably is one out there."
What she would really like to find, Thorne said, is a government Web site "that would offer me the opportunity to say what I think."
That does not surprise Evans. "As you put more out there, people want more," she said. "They will want to be able to do more. It's convenient to do things that way rather than get in your car and go downtown."
Would the plug ever be pulled if e-government services aren't popular? "I would say no right now, but that's not out of the realm of possibility," she said. "Regardless of the medium, we want to be citizen-centered, citizen-focused."
Diane Frank contributed to this report.