E-mail is becoming an integral part of our lives. It is a way to communicate quickly and easily. And, with an organization as large, bureaucratic, complex and generally daunting to taxpayers as the Federal Government, sending an e-mail to get information would seem to be an ideal solution.
GSA seems to think so. It recently set up an e-mail service for citizens to ask questions of their Federal Government. People can ask about a wide range of topics from taxes to Social Security and health care. FirstGov promises a response within two days. It expects e-mails to top 100,000 this year and to grow to about 500,000 next year.
The Wall Street Journal decided to put the government to a test of sorts to see how different agencies responded to e-mail questions. The Journal staff sent the questions to Firstgov.gov and also to the agencies they thought would be the most appropriate to answer the question.
As you might expect, some agencies answered quickly and correctly. Other agencies didn’t bother to respond.
The overall result was that someone wanting a quick response is likely to get faster service from FirstGov than going directly to an agency. For example, a question about how much a person had put into Social Security was directed to a page somewhere on the SSA website that explained how to get an updated statement. On the other had, e-mail to SSA asking for information was never answered even though their frequently asked questions (FAQ’s) were found to be very helpful.
A question to the Department of Health and Human Services led the researchers to conclude that there is a need for a service like FirstGov. The HHS page didn’t contain an e-mail address. Eventually the researchers got referred to two other parts of HHS and, ultimately, referred to a non-working phone number. FirstGov quickly led the reporters to the information.
The Internal Revenue Service also did well. It answered the questions quickly and clearly but the information was through an 800 number. IRS apparently prefers to talk to taxpayers directly, probably because of the complexity of the tax code.
The State Department never responded to a request for information but FirstGov provided the information requested quickly and accurately.
In short, the internet is making it easier to track down information from an organization as complex as the Federal Government and the e-government initiative is apparently helping citizens deal with agencies more efficiently but there are still some service issues that need to be improved.