By Shane Peterson, News Editor
Researchers found that greater uniformity and standards are required to improve the efficiency of e-government.
While lots of debate surrounds just how long it will take for e-government to arrive, Brown University researchers decided to take a more rational approach: They wanted to find out where e-gov is today.
The researchers, in their first effort in a three-year project dedicated to e-government, studied 1,813 government Web sites and found that 78 percent of the sites delivered no online services, only two percent delivered more than three services and large numbers had no privacy policies.
"The thing that surprised me the most was that, despite all the public concern about privacy and security, government Web sites still have a long way to go to address those issues," said Darrell West, a professor of political science and director of Browns Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions, who authored the report. "I would have thought that government sites would have been further along than they apparently are."
The study evaluated Web sites on 27 features, such as: availability of office phone numbers, online databases, external links to other sites, audio clips, video clips, subject indexes, disability access, the use of digital signatures, acceptance of credit card payments, search capabilities, chat rooms, automatic e-mail updates, push technologies and personalization features.
Texas took first place with a score of 51, followed by Minnesota, New York and Pennsylvania, which all scored a 50. Illinois, with a score of 49, rounded out the top five. Kansas (48), North Dakota (48), Florida (47), Missouri (47) and Oregon (47) made up the rest of the top 10 states. At the bottom were Rhode Island (29), Delaware (31) and New Hampshire (32).
Researchers found that large states ranked more highly in this study than small states, but attributed this to the fact that larger states, due to economies of scale, were able to spread out the cost of maintaining a top-tier Web site.
According to the report, state rankings were based upon an index for each Web site based on 12 important features -- phone contact information, addresses, publications, databases, foreign language access, privacy policies, security policies, an index, disability access, services, e-mail contact information and search capabilities.
Researchers used the index to measure the presence of these features on each Web site and then multiplied the score by 8.4 to convert it to a scale running from 0 (having none of these features) to 100 (having all 12 features).
Good News, Bad News
The Taubman Center report, "Assessing E-Government: The Internet, Democracy and Service Delivery by State and Federal Governments" www.insidepolitics.org/egovtreport00.html, assessed 1,716 state government Web sites, 36 federal government legislative and executive sites and 61 federal court sites. Researchers studied an average of 34 Web sites for each individual state.
West said the team of researchers found that no state employed a
consistent or standard design across their Web site system, adding that this was confusing and did not give the Web system a feeling of coherence. The researchers also found that several sites did not contain a phone number or address and many more had no e-mail contact information.
"It struck me that, from a citizen standpoint, contact information is fundamental," West said. "Thats what citizens need to know. Often, when they visit a Web site, they just want to know a phone number, an address or an e-mail contact. Far too many sites were lacking in those regards."
West said researchers sent out e-mail surveys to CIOs in all 50 states and 38 CIOs at the federal level and got responses from 37 CIOs. The CIOs surveyed were "remarkably upbeat" about e-government, he said, adding that their enthusiasm came from e-governments potential to cut costs and improve efficiency.
"In the short run, e-government has great potential to make government more efficient," he said. "If that happens, in the longer run, e-government can reduce the gulf between citizens and government and help to restore citizen confidence in government. If citizens start to see more efficient results, it could dramatically reshape how citizens feel about government."
The problem now is that citizens have a "bottom-line orientation" and expect government to be as efficient as the private sector, he noted, adding that this translates into a perception that government is behind the times and doesnt move as quickly as it should.
Despite governments image problem, researchers did find good news.
"The positive news concerns democratic responsiveness," West said, explaining that the team of researchers sent out nearly 300 e-mails querying various agencies at the federal and state levels as to their hours of operation. "Ninety-one percent responded, and three quarters responded within a day. That was much better than what I anticipated. What it told me is that government offices are being reconfigured for the Internet era, and it suggests that job responsibilities are being redefined in light of e-government."
Starving Sites and Silos
While some government agencies are making progress, West said the team of researchers found that many government Web sites are starved for resources. "Its really across the board," he explained. "Governments need to put more cash in, need to hire more personnel and need to support those personnel."
Besides the resource barrier, silo mentalities still exist and still contribute to the haphazard feel of some government Web sites, West added. "There certainly are turf battles that have made it difficult for there to be uniform and consistent standards across agencies. Theres no question thats a problem of e-government. My hope is that well make progress on that front because agencies cant reinvent the wheel all the time -- theyre going to have to work together to make this thing work."
Finally, West noted, the inherent limitations of government contributes to a dearth of streamlined government Web sites. "Government is set up to accomplish a lot of different things. The result is often chaos and messiness, and so we shouldnt be surprised that, in the short term, e-government takes on those qualities."
Future plans for Taubman Center research include a national public-opinion survey on e-government, which would measure how much people are going online; where they are going; what they like and dont like; and what they would like to see improved.