Use of Web, e-mail to contact agencies on the rise

Americans' use of the Internet to access government information is growing rapidly, according to a new study.

The report, "How Americans Get in Touch With Government," showed a 50 percent growth from 2002 to 2003 in the number of Americans who visited a federal, state or local government Web site or contacted a government official online. Still, people who reported they had contacted government within the past year said they preferred telephone or in-person visits to the Web or e-mail by a 53 percent to 37 percent margin.

The report was based on a survey of almost 3,000 Americans by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The more complicated a person's questions or problems, the more likely they were to prefer phone or in-person contact. People were also more likely to use the phone or in-person contact to share personal or sensitive information. The Internet was especially popular for patrons trying to get specific information or complete a transaction.

"People still want real-time interaction with the government for certain kinds of problems, especially those that are urgent or particularly challenging," said John Horrigan, a Pew Internet Project senior research specialist and the author of the report. "The Internet still is not quite there with real-time interaction. I expect that's something they will be shooting for in time, but how it unfolds is very much an open question."

Of those who contacted the government, 37 percent had at least a college degree. Of those who had no contact with the government, 46 percent had only a high school education and 24 percent had not finished high school. People at higher education levels were more likely to report that they were satisfied with the results of their interaction with government. While the report showed that Internet users were more likely to be satisfied, researchers concluded that demographic, socioeconomic and other factors were responsible, not the fact that members of the group were Internet users.

Internet users were more likely then users of other methods to report that their interaction took less time than expected. Those who used the phone were more likely than those who used the Internet to report problems with their interaction. Problems included being unable to get in contact with the right person, getting stuck on hold or being transferred to many different people.

"The Internet is most useful for government outreach. It lets people get a lot more info, and it enables them to ask much better questions when they do get someone on the phone," Horrigan said.

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