Poll: Public hopes e-gov leads to accountability

The E-Government Poll

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State and local government officials see the Internet as a way to improve efficiency and save money, but a nationwide poll shows that the public sees it as a medium with the potential to make government more accountable.

At the same time, most Americans said they worry that the Internet lacks adequate security and privacy to protect their personal information. The Internet's vulnerability to hackers and the potential for misuse of personal information have left the public wary of online transactions such as filing tax returns or voting, said Peter Hart, who polled 1,500 individuals in mid-August.

The poll (www.excelgov.org/egovpoll/index.htm) was conducted for The Council for Excellence in Government, a private group that promotes improved performance by government. By overwhelming numbers, Americans told pollsters they are pleased to be able to obtain a growing amount of government information and receive some government services via the Internet.

The most surprising finding, Hart said, was that the public expects the Internet to make it easier to hold government accountable for what it does or fails to do. The poll was conducted by research companies operated by Hart and Robert Teeter. Hart released the findings Sept. 28 in Washington, D.C.

"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.

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

Indeed, 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, the public fears online privacy breaches more than it loathes lines at the department of motor vehicles, Hart said.

The public is less inclined to vote via the Internet; nearly 60 percent said they oppose online voting. Hart and Teeter attribute the reluctance at least in part to security concerns.

Sixty-three percent of those polled said they thought the Internet would be a useful tool for tracking candidates' voting records, and 54 percent said the Internet would provide a good way for the public to comment on legislation. Both functions would make it possible for people to hold government more accountable, the pollsters said.

Otto Doll, chief information officer for South Dakota, said the poll's finding on accountability would surprise many in government because government officials tend to think of the Internet mainly as a way to improve efficiency and save money.

So far, however, savings have proven elusive, he said. Although a number of states now let residents renew drivers licenses online, for example, "no DMV offices have been shuttered," Doll said. Online services so far have been "additive cost," he said.

Hart said the poll's findings show that "the public is extraordinarily receptive to electronic government." Yet security fears prompted 65 percent of those surveyed to recommend proceeding carefully toward electronic government, he said.

Two out of three Americans 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 governmentagencies 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 relied on telephone interviews with 1,003 members of the general public, 150 government officials and 155 operators of businesses and nonprofit organizations.

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 got 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 e-government would improve government effectiveness.

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