Study: User fees may limit access to city government services

City governments have made dramatic gains in putting information and services online in the past year, but they tend to rely too heavily on user fees and premium services that ultimately may limit user access, according to a report released this month by Brown University.

The authors recommended that government officials carefully consider the ramifications of reliance on for-fee services that might create a "two-class" society of information haves and have-nots.

"These features need to be assessed very carefully in order to determine how they will affect the ability of ordinary people to access electronic government," the authors said.

The study found that 11 percent of city government Web sites charge user fees to execute particular online services, while 2 percent have premium sections requiring payment for entry. Two percent of sites have commercial advertising, and 8 percent have restricted areas requiring user names and passwords to access.

The report is the second annual update on urban e-government in the United States conducted by the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

The findings are based on an analysis of 1,567 city government Web sites in the 70 largest metropolitan areas. A research team led by Darrell M. West analyzed 22 sites for each of the largest metropolitan areas nationwide as defined by the U.S Census Bureau.

The most highly ranked city governments in the study were Minneapolis, Seattle, Denver, San Diego, Boston, Kansas City, Dallas, Washington, Houston and Tampa.

Other key findings were:

? Forty-nine percent of city Web sites offer services that are fully executable online. The most frequent services are requesting services, requesting information, paying traffic tickets and filing complaints.

? Ninety-three percent of the Web sites provide access to publications and 77 percent have links to databases.

? Thirty-eight percent show privacy policies, and 25 percent have security policies.

? Eighty-two percent of city government Web sites have some form of disability access.

The research team evaluated Web sites based on a 100-point scale measuring the availability of information and services, the quality of citizen access, privacy, security, disability access and foreign language translation. The analysis was undertaken in June and July 2002.

The report said cities could improve online services by making more extensive use of interactive technologies that would hold leaders accountable; publishing Web sites in languages other than English, especially in areas with large non-English speaking populations; and empowering citizens by providing Web site search engines and areas to post citizen comments.

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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