Citizens in countries around the world are discovering they can go on the Internet rather than travel to city hall to do business with government offices. In the United States, 68 million Americans used national, state, or local government web sites this year, and 60 percent say the sites have improved their outlook on the way government works.
Brown University Political Science professor Darrell West has examined the web sites of 190 countries around the world. Most, he says, started out as little more than billboards, information offerings.
"Now they are evolving into more of a service delivery system, where citizens and visitors can do all sorts of things, obtain business permits, file for visas, order motor vehicle licenses," he said. "So it's become a much bigger and more productive type of activity than it was five years ago."
For obvious reasons, Mr. West says, generating revenue is a high priority for governments and the Internet makes it easier to collect money citizens owe.
"A lot of countries have moved toward online tax filing, using a government web site to collect fees," he said. "If citizens have to buy a hunting license or a fishing license, use that as a way to generate revenue."
Lee Raini, Director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, says U.S. government web sites have increased tourism.
"The number one thing they do when they go to those sites is get tourism and recreation information about parks and activities," he said. "You can register for campsites and a lot of people are planning their vacations around that kind of information that they find on government web sites."
The sites have also given rise to a kind of "electronic citizenship." Mr. Raini says 42 million Americans have used the sites to research public policy issues, 23 million to relay their opinions to public officials, and 14 million to gather information to help them decide how to vote on an issue.
"It's hard to find a single person in any place in the world who feels that his or her dealings with government bureaucrats have been terribly satisfying," Mr. Raini said. "A lot of people get the runaround when they go to government agencies. And the fact that government information can be a lot more readily available to people on their time rather than on government officials' time could be a boon to relationships to their governments."
That seems to be happening. Lee Raini says 80 percent of the visitors to government web sites say they find what they are looking for, a sharp contrast to normal dealings with governments.