E-gov balancing act

Study: Citizens like e-gov, but worry about security

"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." ? Stanley Gutkowski, Accenture

Henrik G. de Gyor

Greater numbers of Americans are using e-government services, but many still have serious concerns about the security and privacy of their online transactions with government, according to a new study.

"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 Patricia McGinnis, president and chief executive officer of the Council for Excellence in Government, a Washington nonprofit, nonpartisan group that works to improve government performance.

The study, "The New E-government Equation: Ease, Engagement, Privacy and Protection," showed three-quarters of American e-gov 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.

The study, released April 14 by the council, was based on polling conducted in February by Hart-Teeter Research, which surveyed U.S. adults and senior government officials, as well as Internet users in other selected nations. Accenture Ltd. of Hamilton, Bermuda, funded the study.

E-government refers to agencies using the Internet and other information technologies for activities such as making information available on Web sites, improving communication between agencies and allowing people to conduct business online, such as filing taxes or registering a business.

Once people try e-government services, they become converts, the study showed. Of all adults surveyed, only 26 percent said they preferred to conduct business with the government online, as opposed to interacting in person or by telephone or the mail. But among e-gov users, 41 percent said they prefer to use the Internet.

The study "confirms what we see every day," said Stanley Gutkowski, managing partner of Accenture's USA Government unit in Reston, Va. "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 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. *

Staff Writer Gail Repsher Emery can be reached at gemery@postnewsweektech.com.

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