Skating ahead of the puck

Proponents of e-government should not be surprised by a recent poll that showed most Americans seek information, not services, on government Web sites, but nor should they be discouraged.

According to the survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 77 percent of Americans are likely to look for tourism or recreational information, while 70 percent do research for work or school. The most popular e-government service, tax filing, came in near the bottom of the list, at 16 percent.

The results suggest, at first glance, that government agencies would be better off investing their time and money in developing Web sites that make information more accessible rather than laboring over the kind of transaction-oriented applications people often envision when they talk about e-government. But that's only half right.

There's no doubt that one of the government's most valuable assets is information. Whether it's recreational information from the National Park Service, environmental data from the Environmental Protection Agency or health studies from the National Institutes of Health, the federal government is unrivaled as a public resource in many fields.

But don't dismiss the appeal of online transactions. The Pew survey may not reflect disinterest so much as discomfort. Consider tax e-filing, one of the most successful e-government applications. Many people who are unwilling to file online themselves have no problem going through an H&R Block, and more file electronically every year.

It's clear that comfort comes with familiarity. An informal survey of visitors to Federal Computer Week's Web site found that nearly 70 percent of 570-plus respondents had made transactions through a government Web site outside of work.

"Some people skate to the puck," hockey great Wayne Gretzky once said. "I skate to where the puck is going to be." The same sense of anticipation is crucial to any successful venture in a new area. By working on e-government applications now, federal agencies will be better prepared when the public comes looking for them.


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