Most adult internet users (82%) have looked for government information online. Government website users also report record levels of satisfaction with government information and transactions online. These encouraging statistics come from two new reports by the Pew Internet and American Life Project and ForeseeResults.com, respectively. Both reports were issued on April 27 (coincidence?); together they provide a snapshot of the government web and its users.
Pew Internet Report
The Pew report, Government Online: The internet gives citizens new paths to government services and information (www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Government-Online.aspx), focuses on the demographics and use patterns of those who tap into government information at the local, state, or federal level. Among those who went online for government information at least once in the past year, government social media outlets and data were big draws.
To assess the popularity of government data, Pew asked survey participants whether they had looked for government stimulus spending, campaign contribution data, text of legislation, or had used sites such as Data.gov and USAspending.gov. Positive responses came from 40% of internet users, a hopeful note for those advocating for more online government transparency.
Pew also found that about 30% of internet users turned to channels other than government websites, such as social media sites or email alerts, for their information. This positive response should help to focus the deployment of social media by governments. Among the alternative channels, videos, emails, and blogs were most popular; Facebook pages, text messages, and Twitter were used the least. The embrace of social media by some is tempered by the response to a related question: users ranked social media outreach in general far below the utility of information and agency contacts on websites and the availability of online transactions, such as renewing a drivers' license.
The positive data from the Pew report has been echoed in blogs and online news services. Ars Technica (http://arstechnica.com/), one of the first to report the story, declared that "the survey finds hefty percentiles of online America using government sites to read up on the latest legislation, post comments, apply for jobs, look for services or benefits, peruse statistics, download forms, get advice on health and safety issues, and find other ways to tap local, state, and federal agencies for various goodies."
This may be true for "online America," but the Pew report makes it clear that we still have a digital divide along the lines of income and education. According to the report, "High-income and well-educated internet users are much more likely than those with lower levels of income and education to interact with government using many of the online channels we evaluated in our survey... Whites are significantly more likely than either African Americans or Latinos to participate in the online debate around government issues or policies...and are also much more likely to go online for data about government activities such as stimulus spending or campaign finance contributions."
Those promoting the use of alternative channels for government information can take heart, however. Racial differences fade when the use of social media sites, email alerts, and blogs are measured. Racial minorities were also more supportive of government social media use than were whites.
ACSI E-Gov Satisfaction Index
The second report, from ForeSeeResults.com, measures satisfaction with federal government websites. The executive branch has contracted with ForeSee to have its website users surveyed on their satisfaction level, which ForeSee determines using the American Consumer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) methodology and the company's own analysis. If you regularly surf the U.S. government web, you are familiar with the ForeSee pop-up box requesting your feedback. What you may not know is that many people actually click through and complete the survey. The rest of us can thank them for the insights they provide.
For the first quarter of 2010, the period covered by this latest report, ForeSee collected responses from more than 250,000 visitors to 106 federal websites. Their overall user satisfaction level was 75.1 on the 100-point ACSI scale, the highest level since 2003. You can download the full report, ACSI E-Gov Satisfaction Index Q1 2010, from www.foreseeresults.com/research-white-papers/recent-research.shtml.
ForeSee measures user satisfaction, a factor heavily dependent on user expectations, as report author Larry Freed explained in an interview. Many transactional sites, for example, may rank highly because people are happy just to be able to complete the task online at all. The Social Security Administration's sites for Social Security applications and for their retirement estimator each netted 90 points on the ACSI Satisfaction Index. Not to take away anything from the excellent design of the sites, but the simple pleasure of completing a government-related task online at these sites may cushion their scores.
In addition to the E-commerce/Transactional sites, Foresee aggregates scores for sites in their Recruitment/Careers, Portal/Department Main Site, and Information/News categories. Unfortunately for NewsBreak readers, who are more likely to use the portal and information sites, these two ranked lowest in user satisfaction. The picture is not as bleak as it sounds, however. Portal sites such as Cancer.gov netted, in aggregate, the same 75-point score as overall government website satisfaction. Government information/news sites came in at 74, the same as the ACSI-measured aggregate score for private sector equivalents. ForeSee's Freed points out that sites in these categories present more dense and varied information, making navigation and search a challenge. Over his years of working with the survey, Freed has noticed that government sites can improve their scores on search by making such enhancements as suggesting related terms. Using common words rather than agency lingo is a great way to improve satisfaction with navigation.
The Pew survey of 2,258 adults was conducted between Nov. 30 and Dec. 27, 2009. The ForeSee feedback was collected over 3 months, from January to March 2010. Their survey periods do not overlap with each other, but they do both overlap with the period of heated national debate over health care insurance issues. ForeSee report author Freed speculates that the effect on user satisfaction may not be what you think. It's possible that many more Americans coming online to get answers were happy to find information, no matter how they felt about the debate.
The effect of politics is more apparent in the Pew report. Pew found that respondents overall judged the federal government's openness and accountability more favorably if they were government data users, but that internet use was not even close to being the controlling factor. Party affiliation had a vastly more powerful effect on attitude even when demographics were taken into account. The internet has not changed a long American tradition of distrusting government if your favored party is not in power.