How accessible is online government information?

A Georgia librarian uses Lib2Gov to help patrons access online government information.

A library patron seeks immigration information for her husband.

The article below comes from guest blogger Pat Ball, who serves as the branch manager of the Cobb County Public Library System in Marietta, Georgia.

The E-Government Act was passed in December of 2002. On November 7, 2007 the E-Government Reauthorization Act of 2007 was introduced. The bill would amend and reauthorize appropriations for the E-Government Act.   Needless to say this reauthorization never happened. Nonetheless the original mandate has not ended. More and more government is going online and the public is required to interact with government through these means.

E-government means different things to different people. For some it is submitting a form online and for others it may mean sending an email message to their Member of Congress or otherwise interacting with government online. E-government as defined by the Government encompasses both e-government and e-government services and is below:

“The use by the Government of web-based Internet applications and other information technologies, combined with processes that implement these technologies, to 1. Enhance the access to and delivery of Government information and services to the public, other agencies, and other Government entities; or to bring about improvements in Government operations that may include effectiveness, efficiency, service quality, or transformation. ” (CRS Report 2008).

For the purposes of this discussion I am focusing on e-government services and utilizing the definition as developed by the E-Government Services Committee a subcommittee of ALA’s Committee on Legislation.

E-Government services is defined as the use of technology, particularly the Internet, as a means to deliver government services and to facilitate the interaction of the public with government entities. (Adopted by the COL E-Government Services Subcommittee, May 2008)

Libraries have been offering government Services for many years. We have long provided tax information for both state and federal levels. Libraries also provide applications for student financial, SAT, ACT and the list goes on. It became e-government as information migrated online. New to this array of services online are the many social services and benefits applications that have also migrated online. In some instances some are available online exclusively.   Picking up a paper form from the library required no extra skills. Accessing information online requires a skill set other than walking or driving to the library. This has presented a challenge for many in particular those who are in need of   e-government  services the most.

Most libraries first encounter with e-government services was during the Medicare B sign up which brought a larger number of seniors to the library for help. At that time we had not identified it as an unfunded mandate. Nor could we forsee the many other services that librarians would be required to assist with unfunded and unsupported by state, federal and local governments. The library, one of the most trusted institutions in the nation had also become the central community center for computer access. Most front line librarians had no knowledge and were usually unaware of government referrals and reliance on them for e-government services.  One of my first encounters with government referrals to libraries was some years ago the state of Georgia required all truck drivers to renew their license online. They came to the library in droves and many at different levels on the digital literacy spectrum.   Some were totally dependent on the library for the entire process and others had no problem at all accomplishing this task online.  It provided a real lesson on what is required to interact online with government services:  basic literacy skills, email address that you can remember,  important documents, social security number,  work history, medical history, etc. It took three days for me to help one patron get his license renewed.  We got all the way to the end of the application to find out he needed an email address or we forgot to write down his license number and so we would have to start the process all over again.   There were valuable lessons learned from the experience.

Today the government clearly calls on libraries to assist as with President Obama’s message to libraries at ALA’s Annual Meeting in Chicago for assistance with helping Americans sign up for Affordable Health Care. We have come a long way,  someone has heard our cry in the wilderness of government. Funding was provided to IMLS for training for librarians for the Affordable Care Act. However, this training provided no funding for front line library staff.

The library has earned the reputation as a trusted and safe entity within the community. We provide equal access to our communities with no expectations or motives other than empowerment.    It has become an expectation of the community as well as the government:  local, state and federal.

Digital literacy skills are becoming more and more important. This year for first time, the state of Georgia did not send or print paper tax forms for citizens; it all migrated online. Working at McDonald’s or CVS require no digital skills but if you want to work at either you have to know how to first find the right application online and then have the necessary digital  skills to navigate and fill out the application. It is amazing in observing those who access public computing in libraries that many can navigate through Face book but cannot use any other digital tools.

Recently a friend whose mother has always been totally independent needed to renew various government benefits. This was usually done through regular mail and phone interviews. However this year she was told to do it online and if she did not have a computer at home to visit her local library for help.   My friend’s mother can’t navigate through how to use a cell phone, much less figuring out without extensive one on one help how to renew benefits online.

E-government services   are an unfunded mandate for libraries but as always we rise to meet the challenge of empowering our communities. This does not mean we should stop lobbying for money to support such services but we need to use it as a bargaining chip to demand more funds. In our communities we still have those who don’t have the digital skills to interact online with government. How can we best empower this population? There are many ways we can ensure that the disenfranchised have equal access to government information and services.

Libraries should assess the need level for e-government services within their communities.  Not all libraries will need to provide for the same level of e-government services.  In those communities where digital literacy and the lack of home access to a computer are most prevalent, services and programs should be designed to meet the needs of those communities. If necessary,  where needed libraries should provide the opportunity for patrons to make an appointment for a one on one with a professional librarian. This should be in addition to our regular reference services and point of access at public computers. Librarians working with patrons at various levels should be able to assess the digital skill levels of those accessing public computing and they should be able to refer those in need of help to where they can get the help they need to interact in a timely manner with government.

Seifert, J. W. Reauthorization of the E-Government Act: A “Brief Overview. CRS Report (May, 2008). (accessed May 24, 2010)

Bertot, J.C., McClure, C.R., Thomas, S., Barton, K.M., & McGilvray, J. Public Libraries and the Internet 2007: Study Results and Findings (July 2007). Tallahassee, FL: Information Use Management and Policy Institute. http://www.ii.fsu.edu/content/view/full/15164 (accessed June 2, 2010)

About Jazzy Wright

Jazzy Wright is the Press Officer of the American Library Association's Washington Office. Email her at jwright@alawash.org.

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