A survey published Wednesday shows that while more than half of Americans prefer to interact with their federal, state and local agencies over the internet, actual use of digital government services hovers around one-quarter.
The survey, conducted by the tech consulting firm Deloitte, found that 23% of U.S. residents regularly interact with government through websites and mobile apps. But a majority said they like the option of online services at every rung of government, with 55% preferring it for state services and 50% wanting it for local government.
The difference between desire for digital services and actual use comes from the fact that many government websites remain too wonky for many people to navigate, or inaccessible due to lack of internet access, according to Michele Causey, the leader of the digital government transformation practice in Deloitte’s U.S. public-sector division.
“First and foremost, it’s often difficult for the average constituent to navigate various websites,” she said in an interview. “Just where to go for specific services. One of the challenges is that we often design our websites and services with our organizations in mind. That’s one contributing factor. The second factor I think is not using plain language.”
Causey’s assessment tracks with what many state chief information officers have diagnosed as a major hurdle for their digital offerings: creating cleaner, more consistent user experiences across government.
“End users get frustrated if they have to navigate through the fifth layer or six layer of a website,” Causey said. “How do we make search easier? How do we provide resolutions more quickly for the end user?”
The Deloitte survey found that satisfaction with online government services trailed that of private-sector services. Online voter registration rated highest, with 78% of respondents saying they were somewhat or very satisfied with their options. Motor-vehicle documentation, public health information and transportation services were above 60%, but education, business licensing, child and family services and public housing were all closer to 50% satisfactory.
On the corporate side, streaming media platforms, banking, utility payments and online shopping all rated at least 80%.
One reason that many social services were not as highly rated could stem from demographic gaps. The survey found that high-income individuals were more than twice as likely to access digital government services than low-income residents. It also found that Black, Hispanic and Asian communities were more likely to have difficulties navigating government websites than their white counterparts.
And that keeps the pressure on government to continue offering services through non-digital channels, Causey said.
“Not everyone has access to digital,” she said. “Not everyone has access to 5G or smartphones or the web. And so they often use other service channels to meet their needs.”
The closer to home a government service is, the more likely people are want to interact with it in person: 28% of people said they preferred dealing with a local agency face-to-face, compared with 21% for a state agency and 18% for the federal government.
One service model that was loathed across the board, though, was interactive voice response, preferred by only 6% of respondents at the local level and 7% at the state and federal rungs.
The life-event approach
Despite challenges with satisfaction and user preference, though, Deloitte found that use of digital services is on the rise, a trend that Causey attributed to both the scramble brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic — which caused 36% of respondents to increase their use of digital government — and programmatic shifts toward what she called a life-event approach. In that model, she said, services are organized around major milestones, such as the birth of a child, death of a family member or creation of a new business.
A menu of services built around a new baby might include birth certificates, applications for child tax credits, guidance on postnatal and early-childhood care and maternity benefits. Residents planning to retire could be directed toward resources related to pensions, financial planning, elder care and rebate or discount programs.
Causey singled out Connecticut for building a “portal infrastructure” that allows its residents to “self-serve” around those life events. “If you need child care, if you need to start a business and file paperwork online,” she said.
Many other states have in recent years launched portals designed to ease business registration and licensing processes by bundling many forms and applications on one site. Some, including Washington, D.C., are also planning similar pages for social and family services.
Big in Denmark
Deloitte surveyed 1,000 U.S. residents about their digital government habits. The company conducted a similar questionnaire of about 4,800 people across 12 foreign countries. The U.S. was not far off from global trends, with 25% of respondents worldwide saying they frequently interact with their governments online.
But some countries clearly like digital services more than others. The United States’ 23% usage rate was roughly in line with the responses from the U.K., Portugal and Australia. Germany, Canada, New Zealand and Japan were all below 20%. But in Denmark, regular use of digital government approached 45%, by far the highest figure of any nation featured in the survey.
One roadblock to wider adoption and satisfaction that may cross borders, Causey said, is governments not promoting their digital services as broadly as possible.
“One thing that government is really good about is being extremely humble in their successes,” she said. “So being able to share these are the advancements that we’re making in the public sector space with respect to digital services I think is something that we could do.”