Poll reveals Americans' e-government agenda

The E-Government Poll

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In overwhelming numbers, Americans are pleased to be able to obtain much government information and some government services via the Internet, a nationwide survey shows. But they also worry greatly that the Internet lacks adequate security and privacy to protect personal information.

The survey results indicate that "the public is extraordinarily receptive to electronic government," said Peter Hart, one of two pollsters who surveyed about 1,300 individuals in mid-August.

Poll results show that people believe the Internet offers easier access to government information and creates the potential for government agencies to become more responsive and more efficient.

But two out of three Americans — 66 percent — also say they "are very concerned about the possibility of hackers breaking into government computers, making this the No. 1 public concern about e-government," Hart said.

Slightly fewer — 55 percent — say they worry that government employees will misuse personal information, such as tax records or drivers license information.

Solutions range from improving computer security at government agencies to issuing passwords and digital signatures to Internet users. But even with those measures, it will take time to convince the public that the Internet is safe, Hart said.

The poll, conducted by Hart and Robert Teeter, relied on telephone interviews with 1,003 members of the general public, 150 government officials and 155 operators of businesses and nonprofit organizations.

The most surprising finding, Hart said Sept. 28, was that the public expects the Internet to make it easier to hold government accountable for its actions.

"The survey results suggest that Americans have an agenda for e-government. They see its potential for giving citizens more information, which gives people the power to hold their government more accountable," Hart and Teeter reported. More than half said the Net would be a good way to view representatives' voting records and to offer comments on legislation.

Government officials, by contrast, said the most important benefits from electronic government would be greater access to information and more convenient government services.

E-government is often touted for making it possible to file tax returns online or renew drivers licenses without standing in line. But in another surprise, the poll found that less than half of the public was enthusiastic about those two services.

Apparently, Americans fear online invasions of privacy more than they loathe lines at the department of motor vehicles, Hart said.

About 60 percent of the public and 50 percent of government officials oppose online voting, probably because of concerns about security, the pollsters said.

The survey found that 35 percent of American adults are frequent users of the Internet, 28 percent use it infrequently, and 37 percent don't use it at all. Among Internet users, 66 percent said they had visited at least one government Web site. Federal Web sites received the most traffic, with visits from 54 percent of Internet users. State sites attracted 45 percent, and local government sites drew 36 percent.

Seventy-one percent of visitors to government Web sites rated them excellent or good.

Of the government officials surveyed, 83 percent said e-government is improving their ability to do a good job, and 87 percent said it helps their agency work more effectively with other parts of government.

Even government's detractors are enthusiastic about the Internet, Hart said. Forty-four percent of those polled said the government is ineffective at solving problems and helping people. But 51 percent of that group predicted that e-government would improve government effectiveness.

The poll was conducted for the Council for Excellence in Government, a private group that promotes improved performance by government. The poll is online at www.excelgov.org/egovpoll.

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