E-gov is easier, but citizens worry about security

E-government is making citizens' lives easier. That ease is driving greater use of online government services, but nonetheless, many Americans are seriously concerned about the security and privacy of their online transactions with government, according to poll results released April 14 by the Council for Excellence in Government.

"The more we know about citizens and e-government, the more we see a tradeoff between convenience and ease of use and security and privacy," said Pat McGinnis, president and chief executive officer of the council, a Washington nonprofit, nonpartisan group that works to improve government performance.

The poll was conducted in February by Hart-Teeter Research, which surveyed 1,023 U.S. adults, including 603 e-gov users; 408 senior government employees; 2,013 Internet users in Spain, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia; and held two focus groups in Tampa, Fla. The poll results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent. The study was underwritten by Accenture Ltd. The Hamilton, Bermuda, company provides management consulting and technology services.

The study, "The New E-government Equation: Ease, Engagement, Privacy and Protection," showed that three-quarters of American e-government users said online government information has made their lives easier, and two-thirds said e-gov has made it easier to conduct transactions with the government.

"It's not going to be used by everybody for everything, but we are crossing over into another era, from listening and observing government to doing business with government over the Internet. If the good news is how well people are using this, the even better news is how they feel about it," said Peter Hart, chief executive officer of Peter D. Hart Research Associates.

The study defines e-government as agencies' use of the Internet and other information technologies, including making information available on Web sites, improving communication between agencies, and allowing people to conduct business online, such as filing taxes or receiving a service.

Once people try e-government services, they become converts, the study showed. Of all adults surveyed, the greatest amount ? 38 percent ? said they preferred in-person contact when doing business with the government. But among e-gov users, 41 percent said they prefer to use the Internet to conduct business with government.

"If you've ever tried to call one of the governments, you can be on hold for three days. If you have the Internet, your answer might not be there, but it might. You have another place to go," said one focus group participant.

The study "confirms what we see every day," said Stanley Gutkowski, managing partner of Accenture's USA Government unit. "Citizen interest in electronically conducting transactions is growing every day. We are on the cusp of an incredible increase in the use of the Internet for transactions over the next several years."

Gutkowski said he wasn't surprised to see the convenience of e-government counterbalanced by concerns about security and privacy.

"That has also been the case in the commercial sector," he said.

Asked what should be the government's top priority for its Web sites, the greatest number of respondents ? 33 percent ? said security. More than half of respondents said the government should move slowly in expanding e-government because of security and privacy concerns.

While the study showed that government officials share the public's concerns about privacy and security, the officials ranked security third among their priorities for government Web sites. Just 20 percent of government employees thought security should be the top priority. Making government Web sites easier to use and understand was the officials' top priority.

"The survey findings suggest that senior government employees may need to pay greater attention to public concern about online privacy and security issues," the council's survey report said. "If they want to ensure that Americans use e-government's powerful tools, they must do more than post their security policy," on government Web sites.

As the government moves transactions online, "security has to come along," said Mark Forman, associate director of information technology and e-government in the Office of Management and Budget.

At an April 8 congressional hearing, Forman said agencies have shown substantial improvements in IT security. Sixty-one percent of agencies have security plans in place, compared with 40 percent the year before, and 47 percent of IT systems have been certified and accredited for security, he said. But the General Accounting Office concluded that information security weaknesses at 24 major agencies place federal operations and assets at risk.

Forman said the survey showed that government officials need to do a better job of informing the public about online government services. Twenty-four percent of respondents who were asked what held them back from using online services said they couldn't find the right Web site.

"We have to do a better job of getting the word out," Forman said.

The study indicates that e-gov expansion may in fact be slowing, but Forman said that's not likely the case. The council's November 2001 study reported that 87 percent of government officials said their agency or division made significant additions or changes to its public Web site within the past year; 74 percent of government officials said the same thing in the 2003 survey.

In addition, this year 46 percent said their agency or division is not working on a major project in which the Internet or other information technology plays a central role. This figure is up from 31 percent in November 2001.

The data probably is a reflection of governments' greater emphasis on cross-agency e-government projects, not a slowing of e-gov efforts, Forman said.

"The killer app used to be the agency Web site. Now they are seeing funding divert to cross-agency solutions," which takes attention away from individual agency projects, he said.

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