Pew study: More look online for government data

Friday - 4/30/2010, 7:45pm EDT

Aaron Smith, research specialist, Pew Internet and American Life Project

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By Dorothy Ramienski
Internet Editor
Federal News Radio

More people than ever before are turning to online resources to get information about federal, state and local governments.

The Pew Research Center recently issued a report, Government Online that examined the behaviors of the general public and how people interact, and want to interact, with governments today.

Aaron Smith is a research specialist with the Pew Internet and American Life Project, and explained the impetus behind the study.

"The first reason, simply, is that we had not looked at the way citizens interact with government in quite some time. The last time we did a study like this was way back . . . in 2003 when there was no Facebook, no YouTube, no Twitter. So, it seemed like an appropriate time to revisit the subject, particularly given the renewed emphasis at the federal level, as well as at the state and local level, on opening up data, increasing transparency, and interacting with citizens in new ways."

As Federal News Radio has been telling you, other organizations have looked at whether or not a correlation exists between the Obama Administration's Open Government Directive and how the public perceives government.

The Pew study did not look for a specific correlation, but Smith said that it does appear that more people have started taking an interest in online government data.

Their data show that many people now enjoy going online to interact with their governments, especially when it comes to looking for information.

"We found that about 80 percent of Internet users had done one of 11 different government website activities in the last year. But they're also doing a lot of different things. They are interacting with government agency officials, using new media, talking about government issues with their friends and family members in the broader online community, and they're also going online for data about what government is doing."

The report also shows that 40 percent of those who responded went online not only to find out general information about various governments, but to get their questions answered about the business of government.

"This actually fits with a lot of our previous research, which is that Americans are increasingly using the Internet to go to the source, as it were, with decisions that they're interested in making or to find out about issues that are important to them. We saw that, for instance, in the context of the 2008 elections, where people were going online to watch speeches in their entirety, rather than watching clips on the news. . . . But it was certainly striking to us to see the level of interest in exactly the types of things like stimulus spending or government data or campaign contributions."

There were, of course, some surprises when it came to the survey results. Smith said that, overwhelmingly, most people said they still prefer to use the telephone to contact their governments and representatives.

"We've seen this in our prior research, as well, which is that people love getting information online and love completing transactions, but that as their problems get more complex, as they get more urgent, they really do appreciate the ability to speak to someone in person, whether that's face to face or on the telephone. . . . It speaks to the continued relevance and importance of a lot of traditional channels of interactions with citizens."

Interaction preference all really depends, he explained, on what one wants to accomplish. Even those who had very high rates of interactions with governments online said they wanted the ability to interact offline, too.

"It very much depends on the type of activity we looked at. So, for instance, when you look at visiting government websites for basic services and transactions, the folks that do that generally look like the Internet population as a whole. On the other end of the spectrum, when you look at who's going online for data about government, that tends to be a fairly wealthy, well-educated sort of elite population, as it were. Halfway in the middle . . . are the folks that are accessing government information using social media."

Accessibility, too, affected the results. Smith said that those who had high-speed Internet or mobile Web connections were much more likely to interact with governments online.

With that said, however, Smith said some interesting changes are beginning to occur, mainly due to increased wireless capabilities.

"When you look at groups, particularly minority groups, that don't have access to broadband at the same rates as whites . . . They are very active using mobile devices to get online and get information. I think that plays in, as well, with a lot of the parity we see in the social media realm. . . . I think that's partly why you see less of a gap between whites on one hand and African Americans and Latinos, for instance, on the other. [It is] that mobile difference that's helping to bridge some of that gap."