Academic and public libraries have long played an important role in society by managing, disseminating and preserving government information, making it available to researchers, policy makers and the public. With the shift to “digital government,” in which the government delivers information and services to the public directly through online channels, the role of libraries is changing, leading to new challenges and opportunities. The E-informing the Public research project, carried out at the University of British Columbia in Canada, investigates the shift to digital government and its impact on public access to government information.
Potential and pitfalls of e-government
As part of the project, we surveyed librarians across Canada. Many believe that digital government has enormous potential for improved access to government information, and are working locally to facilitate this. Most are adding links to government documents and websites directly into their online catalogs, and many are creating subject guides, promoting government content on their websites, and offering instructional opportunities to their user communities.
At the same time, they expressed grave concerns that information, in some senses, is less accessible as a result of the shift to digital government. In particular, librarians pointed to the uneven distribution of Internet access and digital media skills among the public; the poor findability of online government information, given the scale and complexity of government websites and the lack of effective search tools; and the lack of clear policies and practices to preserve vulnerable digital content over the long term. As governments continue to close physical service points, librarians find themselves dealing with an increasing number of patrons who need Internet access and assistance in finding and using government content. Ensuring that this information and associated services are available, possibly in collaboration with government agencies, is an opportunity for libraries to demonstrate social value.
What do people want from e-government?
Another aspect of the E-informing the Public project focuses on why and how people use online government information. The most common reasons are prosaic: to find information about government programs and services, carry out service transactions, download forms or apply for jobs. The number of people in direct communication with the government through online channels remains low, although the concepts of participatory democracy and an engaged citizenry are important underlying rationales for the move to digital government.
As use of social media by government agencies becomes commonplace, we may see an increase in direct citizen engagement in the future. In the meantime, we still need to ensure that members of the public are able to meet their own basic information needs.
Google is not the answer
In one of our studies we went to local public libraries with laptop computers and asked people to search for Canadian government information on a number of common search topics, such as benefit programs for seniors, the process of importing a vehicle, and alternate sources of energy. The majority of searchers used Google rather than government portals, and more than a quarter of all searches did not result in useful information. Even more disturbing is that the majority (68 percent) of documents selected were from sources other than the Canadian government!
On the other end of the spectrum, some searchers were extremely savvy and found creative ways to access content. For example, to find information on how to file a tax return, one person surprised us by going directly to YouTube. Within seconds he found the perfect solution: an instructional video produced by the Canada Revenue Agency.
Opportunities to contribute
The last example hints at the great potential for digital government to support citizens’ needs. However, the assumption that simply putting content online makes it accessible to all is highly problematic, as information professionals know well.
Libraries have an important role in supporting members of the public who lack the skills, motivation or infrastructure to participate fully in digital government; in providing input and expertise in matters of information management and preservation; and in contributing to the design of more effective information systems.
Contributions of this kind require resources and, as many of the librarians in our study noted, more training and educational opportunities for information professionals. In the United States, there is a trend toward greater involvement of libraries in e-government, based on important initiatives from the University of Maryland’s iSchool, but internationally, there is much more work to be done.