In 2005, the eUSER project undertook a questionnaire survey covering approximately 10,000 households in ten European Union Member States, both old and new. In order to achieve as close to a random sample as possible, this was completed using either telephone or direct interview, with the responses being keyed into a database. The purpose of the survey was to provide some of the first systematic evidence in Europe of citizen user behaviour and attitudes to the use of public services, and particularly the role of e-Services in this context.
The eUser project surveyed the use by citizens of, and their attitudes to, three sets of e-Services, in e-Government, e-Health and e-Learning. The e-Government part of the survey focused on a number of themes – the public’s use of government services, the different channels (or media) employed, the nature of potential future demand for e-Government, the barriers and experiences in using e-Government, and the socio-economic attributes of e-Government users compared with non-users. The results provide important new information on the role that the Internet is now playing in the delivery and take-up of government services by European citizens.
Some selected initial results of the eUSER survey are presented in this article. Fuller and final results will be available at the end of 2005 from the author or the eUSER website.
Use of government services
As illustrated in Chart 1, across the ten EU Member States in the sample, almost 70% of all respondents had contact with the Public Administration (PA) in the last 12 months. There is, however, some variation between countries, with the more southern EU Member States (France and Italy) having somewhat less contact, whilst there is not much difference between the central and northern Member States and the New Member States of eastern Europe.
Although usage levels overall do not differ greatly between service types, the first two administrative services tend to be the most highly used. There are likely to be two reasons for this. First, these are the services, which are most ubiquitous and available because the PAs have tended to roll these out first. Second, because they are legally enforced if the citizen is in a specific situation, the citizen is obliged to use the service.
More significantly, there are quite large differences between countries in the use of different service types. In several countries, some everyday life services are used more than some administrative services, for example, in Denmark and Slovenia the use of public services and facilities, and in the UK both the use of public services and facilities and receiving financial benefits and grants. In the southern European countries of France and Italy, the use of tax services is considerably lower than elsewhere, although the UK is also quite low. These differences probably reflect cultural contexts and legal regimes in different countries. The New Member States tend to closely resemble the average usage patterns, with the exception mentioned above of Slovenians.
Other data shows how respondents felt about the ease or difficulty of using services, the differences between type of service and country are not large but do nevertheless show interesting variations. Although overall ease of use is quite high with a score of about 3.5 out of 5, the EU 10 average shows that the most difficult to use services are those involving the transfer of finances, either paying taxes or receiving benefits with the latter the most difficult of all.
Amongst the different Member States, Denmark scores the highest in terms of ease of use, and this could be both due to a combination of better designed services and/or more skilled users. There do not appear to be any real differences between older and newer Member States.
Chart 2 shows that the media channel used when contacting government is still overwhelming face-to-face. In some countries, such as the UK and Ireland, however, the use of the postal services and the telephone has overtaken face-to-face. Overall, new ICT media provide access for about 20% of all contacts with government, 17% of this via the Internet or e-mail and 3% via SMS. Denmark’s use of ICT for contacting government is the highest, whilst the older Member States generally, with the exceptions of Germany and Italy, show higher ICT usage than the New Member States. Slovenia has the most use of ICT of the New Member States in the sample at about the same level as Germany.
Potential use of e-Government services
Another set of questions in the survey asks about the future intentions of all government users to use Internet or e-mail for contacting government. Comparing the responses to the existing use of Internet/e-mail by government users shows that the intention of these respondents to use e-Government in the future has the potential to rise from the present 20% level of contacts to 47%. This is a substantial potential rise of well over 100%, although respondents were not asked to indicate when they are likely to use e-Government, and it is known from previous surveys that not all future predictions of use translate into actual use. Nevertheless, strong potential interest is clearly present and shows that policies to encourage future use amongst users of government services are likely to fall on fertile ground.
There are few large differences between countries, though Denmark is clearly the Member State with the highest intended future use at 63% and Hungary the lowest at 33%. The intentions of government users in the New Member States to use e-Government in the future appears also to be slightly less than those of older Member States, with Slovenia again the leading New Member State somewhat ahead of Germany the most lagging older Member State.
In terms of intentions to use different levels of e-Government services, the survey shows that potential demand is highest for information services in all countries in the sample. Next comes communication services and finally transaction services, i.e. the least sophisticated services are in most demand. Of the two transaction services, making payments is more likely to be used than using a digital signature, which indicates that the latter remains a significant barrier to e-Government use. Differences between countries appear to be insignificant in terms of potential demand across the different levels of service.
Use of e-Government on behalf of whom?
Using e-Government services on behalf of others is an important factor in the overall use of such services. On average, one half of e-Government users do so, and of these again one half do so on behalf of family and friends and one half on behalf of their employer as part of their job. There are also important differences between countries, with the older Member States generally having higher percentages of the adult population acting as intermediaries for family or friends (lead by Ireland) and as part of their job on behalf of their employer (lead by Germany), whilst the New Member States have a higher proportion of their use of e-Government characterised by acting on behalf of others. This is likely to be because of the greater access problems and lower digital skills in these countries, and probably reflects the different stages of development of the Information Society. This is also shown in Chart 3.
Seen from the perspective of persons receiving help from an intermediary when accessing e-Government services, other data collected show that on average 17% of all e-Government users did so partially, and 7% did so completely. Support from an intermediary seems to be highest in the New Member States (reflecting the data in Charts 3 and 4), where the relative number of don’t know answers or the lack of an answer were also received, suggesting less familiarity with the idea of getting help from an intermediary in these countries.
Anticipated and experienced barriers to e-Government services
Another part of the survey looks at barriers to the take-up of e-Government by citizens, which are anticipated by many citizens as very important before the services are actually used. Most important is that well over half of potential users think they need face-to-face contact for a specific service. There are also fears about supplying personal information online expressed by 45% of users, but there is also lack of knowledge about whether the service they need is actually available online. Less widespread but still important barriers are potential users’ impression that there is too much effort involved or that they have insufficient technical means. There are also important differences between countries but no distinction between older and newer Member States. Danish and Slovenian users are generally less inclined to anticipate barriers to use, whereas the Czech Republic and Italy anticipate the biggest barriers. The latter two countries together with Poland emphasise particularly the need for face-to-face contact. In the UK, Ireland and Hungary, fears about supplying personal information online are much higher than average.
These anticipated barriers before using e-Government are generally much higher than the barriers actually experienced once e-Government is used. After actual experience with e-Government services, fewer users experience barriers or difficulties (between 17% and 32%) compared with the number of users who perceive barriers before use (between 25% and 58%). The most important difficulty experienced after use appears to be that the user feels that there are significant problems or questions the online service cannot deal with. There are also concerns that the online service cannot cater for the user’s own individual needs, whereas the least problematic but still important factor is that the online service is felt to be too complex to use.
Levels of satisfaction with e-Government services
As shown in Chart 5 below, overall satisfaction levels with e-Government are very similar to overall satisfaction with government services generally with scores between 3.0 and 3.5, which indicates that adding online services to the government service portfolio does not change such perceptions. This can be interpreted both positively, i.e. that the early days of online services with all the attendant difficulties has been very successful, or negatively, i.e. that online services should be improving service quality and hence satisfaction. However, the
relationship between service quality and user satisfaction is probably not a straightforward one.
Service fulfilment (able to completely do or get what wanted from the electronic service) scores second highest after up-to-date and accurate information, but the least satisfactory is an aspect of transparency (easy to see whether an e-mail message has reached the right person).
Identification methods for e-Government
As Chart 6 shows, there are marked differences in the use of the currently available user identification methods, with the most used tending to be the simplest, cheapest and least secure, though for the most commonly used e-Government services arguably secure enough. In terms of ease of use, differences are slight; only the use of digital signatures is a little lower than the others. However, it is probable that once citizens get used to a particular method, it’s ease of use from their perspective increases.
There are also important differences between countries, with Italy leading on the use of user ID/password and PIN codes, compared to Poland which has the lowest use of these. Indeed two of the four New Member States (Poland and the Czech Republic) do not show the pattern typical of the eight other countries in which user ID/password and PIN codes are by far the most common methods. The data seem to indicate that in these two countries at least, some focus and investment has been made on more ‘advanced’ methods, particularly the use of specialised smart cards, in comparison with the other methods. In terms of the most ‘advanced’ methods, Slovenia and Denmark leads on the use of digital signatures and the Czech Republic on the use of specialised smart cards. The very high use of credit cards in Ireland is probably related to the fact that some revenue raising transaction services (such as motor tax) are now fully available online.
Face-to-face contact is still the most important channel for contacting government in Europe – 81% of all citizens who contacted government in the last year did so in person, although not necessarily exclusively by this channel. However, in some countries, telephone and post have overtaken face-to-face (for example in the UK with 74% telephone and only 51% face-to-face).
In the countries surveyed, about 11% of the adult population have used the Internet to access government services and of those who have contacted government in the last year, this figure rises to 20%.
However, potential demand for e-Government services is about 50% of all government users, and could be higher.
Potential demand for e-Government is mainly for information services, then communication services, and lowest for transaction services.
In terms of government services generally, citizens rate their overall satisfaction at about 3.5 out of 5.0, a figure which is almost identical to that for e-Government services.
One quarter of individual e-Government users have acted as intermediaries for family members or friends, and one quarter have also done so on behalf of their employer. Greater proportions of the total adult population in the older Member States have used e-Government on behalf of others in this way, but the share of e-Government users doing so on behalf of others is greater in the New Member States. Twenty four percent of individual e-Government users have received help in using e-Government services from a family member or a friend.
Most barriers which users anticipate they will meet when using e-Government relate to difficulty in actually starting, with a feeling that face-to-face is better and the fear about data privacy important. However, once citizens have used e-Government services, the barriers appear less though still important, and relate mainly to the difficulty of feeling left alone with problems or questions.
When citizens need to identify themselves while using e-Government services, most use simple well-known methods (such as user ID and password and PIN codes), which are not always suitable for legal or financial transactions. User identification is still a barrier to communication and transaction services, although the evidence also shows that once more sophisticated methods are employed (such as digital signature or smart cards) they are often rated as just as easy to use as the more well-known methods.