E-gov's shallow

Thomas R. Temin, Executive Editor

Is e-government really for all the people? Does it engender more trust in government? Does it ultimately increase participation in democracy?

At least one researcher isn't so sure all those questions can be answered with a 'yes.' The answers are important because those assumptions have become shibboleths propelling agencies toward e-government.

Karen Mossberger, an assistant professor of public administration at Kent State University, and her colleagues are in the midst of survey research to answer those very questions. She presented some findings at last month's Digital Government Research Center conference in Boston. The DGRC is a program of the National Science Foundation that awards grants to academics working on technology and policy problems that apply to government.

An initial survey sample of 1,837 people included a large number of low-income Americans, Mossberger reported. It asked them whether they interact with government online.

While acknowledging other polls purporting to show how frequently Americans go online to government sites'polls frequently touted by Office of Management and Budget officials'Mossberger filtered responses by income. What she found is that young, affluent and well-educated people are more likely than the poor to support and use e-government.

She reports, 'The potential benefits of e-government, such as greater transparency in government and easier access to public services, could largely bypass the poor.'

For her next round of research, Mossberger wants to test the hypothesis that e-government raises trust in and transparency of government. But the findings so far should give pause to every agency pursuing an online strategy.

If large numbers of people don't get involved in government electronically at the basic levels of seeking information or doing routine transactions, then you can hardly expect them to acquire exalted opinions of government from online services they don't use.

The digital divide, it seems, isn't bridged after all.

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