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The advent of the Internet has given Americans more opportunities than ever before to access information about government services and interact with government at the local, state and federal levels. From renewing library books to applying for hunting licenses to filing income tax returns, the assortment of electronic government services -- called e-government for short -- available today online is seemingly endless.
Governments have sought to migrate public services to the Web to help reduce the cost of operations by cutting down on labor and overhead, while at the same time increasing the collection of revenue, such as allowing citizens to pay parking tickets and taxes online. E-government can also help improve services to citizens and foster democracy.
But despite the dramatic growth of e-government services, government Web sites overall have been unable to reach their potential because of slow citizen adoption and the inability of government agencies to break through the bureaucratic culture, analysts say. Government CIOs can learn from best practices -- and mistakes -- to build better e-government sites in the future.
"I don't think the government is getting the response it thought it would get," says Alan E. Webber, a Forester analyst who specializes in e-government. "A lot of people assumed as they did prior to the tech bubble bursting that if they built it, people would come. But guess what? They didn't come."
A Pew Internet and American Life survey published last year found that two thirds of American adults had some type of Internet access -- but that meant one-third of adults were still without access. Access to technology was one reason that 42 percent of the 2,925 people surveyed by Pew said their last contact with a government agency was by telephone, compared with only 29 percent who visited a government Web site. Twenty percent preferred to visit government offices in person to solve their problems. "For complex or urgent problems, people tended to prefer more personal contact," says John Horrigan, research director at the Pew Internet Project, a non-profit think tank. "When the problems involved something sensitive, such as tax information, people preferred in-person than over the Web."
Citizen adoption of e-government resources is lagging behind the adoption of online financial services transactions and e-commerce. Webber attributes that partly to the bureaucratic nature of government. Governments need to change their culture from having individual agencies provide single services through stove-piped channels to a more personalized model that can deliver an assortment of services across multiple channels, he says.
The issue of better marketing online government resources to the public and delivering these services across channels is sometimes not up to the public sector CIO. But government CIOs can build better e-government services if they better understand the unique challenges and barriers to success. Americans have a homegrown tendency to distrust government, maybe even more so than private business. Citizens may be reluctant to participate in government processes online that involve sensitive data until they feel more secure. "We're not always sure where the information goes or if it will be used for our benefit or not," Webber says. "What's going to happen if American Express gets the wrong information? Your credit card application gets denied. They're not going to take you away and lock you up or anything like that."
Here are some strategies that government CIOs can use to solve these issues and provide cost-effective help to citizens on the Web:
- Address the security issue Only 77 percent of federal government agencies have had effective security and privacy controls, according to Forrester. Some citizens will be reluctant to interact with government agencies online for anything other than obtaining information until they are certain the information is secure.
- Talk to your customers Find out what is important to target customers. Someone who is 65 and is getting ready to apply for retirement benefits is going to have different priorities from an 18-year-old applying for financial aid for college, Webber says. A younger person may be more comfortable with providing private information over the Web. But an older person may only be interested in pulling down information and downloading a form.
- Re-evaluate business processes A lot of government processes have not changed for decades. Some government agencies try to move outdated processes to the Web. They need to re-evaluate these processes and consider re-engineering some in order to provide better services to citizens online, including services that cut across government agencies.
- Consider phone support for online experience The research shows that people prefer to use the phone or in-person visits for urgent and complex problems they need to resolve with government. Horrigan suggests that governments consider designing phone support as part of the online experience. In the future, he said, voice over Internet protocol is a concept that might allow online users to click on a button that says "I want to speak with someone by phone now."
- Simplify the Web site A clean, simple, and straight forward Web site will work best, which is sometimes not easy at agencies that are governed by decades' worth of mandates and procedures. Citizens complain that it's sometimes easier to call and sit on hold for 10 minutes than to wade through a government Web site for answers. Keep it simple. Get feedback from focus groups.
- Service should fit with architecture Make sure the Web site fits with the overall enterprise architecture. Most governments aren't using a service-oriented or Web-based architecture yet but that's where the private sector is moving. There are now a lot of off-the-shelf products out there that integrate very well with all types of back end systems, Webber says.
Government CIOs should learn some lessons from their corporate counterparts. If a consumer has a bad experience at a company Web site, they are unlikely to return. E-government sites should try to make the user experience pleasant from the beginning.
Elizabeth Wasserman has written about technology and business for Inc., CIO Insight, and the San Jose Mercury News. She is a freelance writer based in Fairfax, Virginia.
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