Information clicks with Web users

Suddenly, government Web sites are hot destinations on the Internet, according to a survey released April 3.

"Sixty-eight million American adults have visited at least one government Web site, and most have visited more than one," according to a Pew Internet & American Life Project survey. That number is up sharply from the 40 million Americans who had visited government Web sites two years ago.

Those numbers show that the use of government Web sites is one of the fastest-growing activities on the Internet, according to Lee Rainie, director of the project. And so far, information seeking far outpaces online transactions on government sites.

By using the Internet, people can find information in minutes that would take hours to obtain by telephone or with a visit to a government office, Pew reported. Tourist and recreational information is the most popular commodity, sought by 77 percent of government site users, said Pew researchers, who polled about 2,400 Internet users in January and 800-plus last fall.

By contrast, the most popular online transaction — paying taxes via the Internet — appealed to 16 percent of government Web site users.

Rainie offered two explanations for this phenomenon. First, compared with the volume of government information online, relatively few online transactions are available. Second, there is the Web-wide reality that Internet users remain reluctant to conduct business online.

"Consumers do lots of window shopping online," Rainie said. They compare prices and read product reviews, but when it is time to buy, most still want to see the merchandise and deal with a live clerk, he said.

That behavior may change as more citizen-consumers undergo "the life-transforming experience" of registering a car online and avoiding long waits in lines at the local department of motor vehicles, Rainie said.

One online transaction many government Web site users said they favor was the ability to check their Social Security accounts. The Social Security Administration offered that service online briefly in 1997, but took it off-line amid an uproar over the possibility of privacy breaches. SSA has no plans to restore the online service, agency spokeswoman Carolyn Cheezum said.

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