Sixty-eight million Americans have used government Web sites, up from 40 million two years ago, according to a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a nonprofit research organization that studies the effects of the Internet on civic and political life. The study was based primarily on telephone conversations with 815 Internet users.
The study offered some contradictory but encouraging evidence that the Internet is fulfilling many people's hopes for a more engaged citizenry. The U.S. government has been trying for years toits operations and encourage public participation through improvements in its technology.
But the study also produced some revealing statistics about government sites and recreation.
"The most prominent surprise was the number of people getting tourism information," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Seventy-seven percent of the respondents who used government Web sites did so to obtain such information.
The other surprise was that "a lot of people were using these sites to do the work of citizenship," Rainie said, including researching public policies, communicating with public officials, and mounting lobbying campaigns. Rainie said that flies in the face of scholarly and activist communities' concerns that government Web sites will encourage "consumers of government" instead of active participants.
A growing interest in health care was evidenced by the heavy use of sites such as the National Institutes of Health. "Half of the people who have used government Web sites have gotten information on health," Rainie said.
Satisfaction ratings were also high, with 76 percent of the respondents rating federal and state sites as "excellent or good," and 49 percent saying the Internet had improved the way they interact with the federal government.
This was the first time the Pew Internet & American Life Project has surveyed use of government sites, even though the subject would appear to be an obvious one for the group. "E-government has only gained prominence in the past two years," Rainie said.