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How Do Americans Access Government Data? Search Engines.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project has issued a new report about how Americans access government information. They found that 82% of online adults in the United States have been to a government website within the last 12 months, and that 44% started at a major search engine. While social media has become increasingly important (31% of online Americans have used blogs, social networking sites, video, and email to access government information and 23% have participated in discussion about government issues online in some way), search is still the primary entry point. This aligns with Pew’s earlier findings that the majority of Americans prefer searching online when looking for government information. As they note in the report:

“As we found in our previous studies on this topic, search engines are frequently the first option when Americans need to find government information or services online. Fully 44% of those who could remember the last government website they visited found that site by conducting an online search. This is much higher than the percentage who visited a site they had used before (16% did this) or who relied on a friend or family member (14%), a government publication or notice (11%) or a general government website such as usa.gov (4%).”

Aaron Smith of Pew Internet & American Life, in an interview with O’Reilly’s Alex Howard said:

“When we asked this question previously in 2003, we found that search engines were far and away the number one way that folks were reaching their destinations,” said Smith. “We found almost exactly the same thing this time around. Sometimes they’ll go to a place that they saw in a notice or an email or a friend or a family member told them about. But, by and large, if they need to find information on their tax bill, they’ll search tax information or IRS in their search engine of choice and get to their destination that way. So that’s very much inline with what we’ve found in previous years and in other areas of online life as well, which is that the search is generally the default entry point to all sorts of information and other types of activities that people take part in.”

This behavior pattern underlines the need for government sites and others who provide government-related data to ensure they can be found in search engines to fully engage with the American public. As I noted recently in a post on O’Reilly Radar about government transparency:

“It’s awesome that organizations like the Sunlight FoundationOpen Congress, and Follow the Money are making details about government actions easily accessible by citizens. And the government itself has made great strides in opening up data with sites such as recovery.gov and data.gov. But the truth is that most people don’t keep a full list of web sites that provide this information handy. Or, actually they do. It’s called Google.”

And it is awesome. According to the report, 40% of online Americans looked for data and information about government (such as about stimulus spending, political campaign contributions, and legislation text). The convergence of changing behaviors of those who consume information (in part due to the ubiquity of search engines), technology that makes data more easily available, and the transparency in government initiatives have triggered an increased interest in government data. This simply wouldn’t have happened and couldn’t have been satisfied in earlier days when our only real channel for accessing this information was from what was delivered via traditional news. (There’s still a real need for news delivery of course, but citizen research and discussion of government issues can now augment traditional channels.)

As the report notes, one of President Obama’s initiatives in the Open Government Directive, released his first day of office, is “Government should be transparent, with information about agency operations and decisions available to the public online.” Clearly, the Pew report strengthens the notion that in order to truly make information to the public online, that information has to be available via search engines.  Today, Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra and Federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra posted on the White House blog about their initial assessment of the Open Government Directive plans. They’ve created an Open Government Dashboard to report progress. They said they’ve so far found that “are off to a good start–but have much more work to do as we transition our overall efforts towards effective agency implementation.”

At GovWebCon (the Government Web Managers Conference) today, Martha Dorris, Acting Associate Administrator of the Office Of Citizen Services and Communications, GSA said:

“Information needs to be accessible where people are, not just where we want them to go. This will be require a major change in how we’ve traditionally done business.” We need to integrate content, think beyond individual agency websites…..”It’s about customer service as well as giving them a voice in the decisions the government makes.”

The Pew study contains a wealth of fascinating information about how we interact with government agencies, how we solve problems, and how technology access, education and income levels, and other factors impact these interactions. But the core takeaway may be Smith’s conclusion in his interview with Howard: “The upshot to government is if you put your data out there, people will clearly use it.”


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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