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Government phone contacts preferred over Web

American like to visit government Web sites for research, but prefer to phone or visit a person if the matter is sensitive or complex, a new study finds.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Americans like to visit government Web sites for research but when it comes to more sensitive and complex interactions — even when they're available online — most prefer to pick up the phone or visit in person, a new study finds.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project said in Monday's report that its findings do not mean inroads by government agencies in making services and information online have been a waste.

"People may go online to find some information about their particular issue they need to contact government over and then pick up the phone," said the study's author, John Horrigan. "It may give them information with which to ask questions or carry out transactions efficiently."

He said the report should serve as a lesson for government Web designers to "focus on how e-government complements other means of contacting government."

According to the study, 40 percent of adult Americans who have contacted government say the telephone is the preferred means. Another 13 percent prefer an in-person visit for a total of 53 percent for real-time, two-way interactions.

By contrast, a combined 35 percent prefer either the Web or e-mail. Ten percent cite a letter as their top choice.

Even Internet users are more likely to use the telephone or in-person visits over the Web or e-mail, though the gap disappears among users of high-speed connections — they are evenly split.

Although more than a third of adult Americans still lack Internet access, that alone does not explain the preference for phones or in-person visits, Horrigan said. Nor is there a significant number of users who complain that the online offerings are inadequate.

Rather, Horrigan said, the preference reflects impatience: "They want a conversation over the phone so they get immediate feedback on what to do next or even face-to-face interactions for certain kinds of problems."

The study does find a few forms of contacts lending themselves better to the Internet: The medium is preferred for conducting research, exploring government benefits or programs and getting information on recreation and tourism.

And Internet users are more likely than nonusers to report successful interactions, by whatever means they choose. But that success is better explained by such factors as the tendency of Internet users to be more highly educated, the study finds.

The telephone-based survey of 2,925 adult Americans, 1,657 of which have contacted government, was conducted June 25 to Aug. 3 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.