Tourism trumps taxes

They're more popular than instant messaging and a rival for Internet shopping. 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 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, said Lee Rainie, director of the project. So what do government Web site users want?

Overwhelmingly, information. With the Internet, people can find information in minutes that would take hours to obtain by phone or through a visit to a government office, Pew reports.

Surprisingly, only a fraction of those who visit government Web sites use the Internet to conduct online transactions with government agencies.

Tourist and recreational information is the most popular commodity, sought by 77 percent of government site users, say Pew researchers, who polled about 2,400 Internet users in January and another 800-plus last fall.

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

The General Services Administration, which sets much of the agenda for government Web sites, is promoting online transactions. On its newly designed FirstGov portal (www. firstgov.gov), GSA highlights such online services as online applications for student loans and Social Security benefits, online opportunities to bid on government contracts and online applications for government jobs.

But so far, information-seeking far outpaces online transactions. Rainie offered two explanations for this phenomenon. First, compared to the volume of government information online, there are relatively few online transactions to perform. 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, said agency spokeswoman Carolyn Cheezum.

The Pew survey revealed an unexpected public interest in "e-citizenship." The researchers found, for example, that 42 million Americans have used government Web sites to research public policy issues and 23 million have sent electronic comments to public officials.

Those numbers correspond to findings of the Congress Online Project. "The number of people going online with an interest in government is exploding," said Brad Fitch, deputy director of the Congressional Management Foundation, the Congress Online Project's parent organization.

Use of congressional Web sites is also increasing dramatically. For example, Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), whose Web page won an award from the Congress Online Project, receives 7,500 unique Web site visits a month — three times the volume of e-mail, postal mail and fax messages combined, according to Fitch.

"It's encouraging to see so many people engaged in citizenship online," Rainie said. But most government sites "are not nearly as good at fostering engagement with constituents as they are at providing information."

Agencies need to do a better job of providing Web sites that enable users to file complaints and comments and contact agency officials, he said.

Too many agencies treat citizens "as consumers rather than owners of government," according to the Pew report and, thus, inhibit public engagement in the nation's political life.

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