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Article

Understanding and Improving e-Government Website Usage

Information Systems

Administrations invest significant time and money into the development of e-government websites. Ultimately, the reward is cost savings and greater efficiency for governments, but this depends on the public’s initial adoption and continued use of the sites. A new research paper investigates the factors that influence people’s usage of e-government sites and offers tips to improve service quality.

man angry at a computer Дмитрий Ногаев-AdobeStock

Cover Photo Credits: ©Дмитрий Ногаев on AdobeStock 

When the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) was rolled out in October 2013 in the US, the launch was an unmitigated failure. Poor planning, oversight and design of HealthCare.gov, the enrollment site, caused problems that were immediately apparent. High demand resulted in the site’s crashing within two hours of launch. Only six users were able to enroll on the first day, out of 250,000 attempts.  

President Barack Obama called it a “well-documented disaster.” It even became a joke on late-night TV, with The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart challenging Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius: “I’m going to try and download every movie ever made, and you’re going to try to sign up for Obamacare, and we’ll see which happens first.”

As more and more services are offered through online channels, how can citizens’ online needs be addressed appropriately?

The case of Healthcare.gov is admittedly extreme. But as more and more services — paying taxes, applying for a business license, paying for school or cafeteria fees — are offered through online channels, how can citizens’ online needs be addressed appropriately? We set out to understand the effect of service quality on the overall use of e-government.  

man angry at a computer as a comics - ©ivector6 on AdobeStock
Photo Credits ©ivector6 on AdobeStock

E-government sites are not Amazon.com

Prior research has shown that continued technology use depends largely on the quality of service that the information system offers, both for organizational and e-government systems. Our research has shown, however, that continued use of e-government sites differs from other cases. In organizations, if a newly implemented system fails to provide the desired service, users can revert to systems already in place, even if they are somewhat outdated. In the case of e-commerce sites, if Amazon.com is not working correctly, users have other retail sites to turn to. 

But in an e-government context, because using online services is more efficient (in terms of time and cost savings) than alternatives (such as telephoning or visiting government offices), users may continue to utilize e-government sites even though the sites fail to meet user expectations. Furthermore, e-government channels have no alternative channels. If users want to submit their taxes to the government, there is no alternative — they must do it either online or offline through the government. If consumers want to buy a shirt, however, they have many options.

This factor means that theories that apply to e-commerce or organizations may not apply to e-government. (Our research may also have relevance to other sectors where users have limited options, such as banking: bank customers do not want to change banks often, so they may be more tolerant of bank website deficiencies.)

The relation between service quality and continued usage

To better understand the relationship between service quality and continued use of public portals, we surveyed more than 200 users of e-government websites in Singapore. Because there is a lack of appealing alternatives to e-government sites, users overwhelmingly had the intention to continue using e-government sites both when the site’s performance was above or below their expectations, our research shows. 

This "Design Secrets of The World's Best E-government Websites" video includes Singapore's e-government website as a model.

In fact, most people, 77 %, are indifferent to a governmental site’s service: they would continue using the site regardless of whether they perceived the service to be good or bad. Previous research in an organizational context has shown this number to be below 50 %. 

As in previous research — and as you might predict — as people’s expectations of a site’s performance are met and exceeded, the more likely they are to continue using the site. But in contrast to previous research, on the graphed curve of our results, as users experience an increasingly higher degree of unmet expectations, the intention to continue using the site also increases. There are two possible reasons for unmet expectations: low perceptions or high expectations.

The group with high expectations that might be motivated to continue to explore the website in search of more functionalities.

We assume that in the location of our study, Singapore, a mature market for e-services, perceived service levels are high. Therefore, we theorize that some users’ expectations were very high, creating a gap between expectations and perceptions. But it is exactly this group with high expectations that might be motivated to continue to explore the website in search of more functionalities. Just as managers might expect more from a good worker, users might expect more from a high-quality website.

How to improve negative perceptions of sites such as Healthcare.gov

As outlined above, our research indicates that people are largely tolerant of e-government website deficiencies — except in extreme cases. In the case of Healthcare.gov, an awareness campaign on the functionalities and limitations of the site might have reduced users’ sense of disappointment. This, coupled with crucial design fixes and more complete information on the homepage, could have helped to ameliorate negative perceptions.

Although users have a high tolerance for deficiencies in e-government websites, the intention to continuing using a site is stronger if users’ perception of the service quality is high. Thus, managers should try to enhance the usability of their website.

For most government websites, however, a fresh theoretical lens is needed to re-examine how service quality perceptions and expectations affect the use of governmental sites. A notable contribution of our work is that we carry out a 3D analysis, showing, in a dynamic manner, how user expectations, perceptions and continued-use intention interact; previous research offered only a more rigid, less insightful 2D analysis.

Our results suggest that e-government quality has a more complex relationship with site usage than envisioned in prior research, one that is different from that of e-commerce or organizations. It is therefore imperative for future research to take the type of website into account when examining user behavior.

 

Methodology

Focus - Methodologie
Singapore provided an excellent context for this study because, as opposed to calling or visiting government agencies, users view Singapore’s well-developed e-government systems as their dominant choice. Moreover, the public is increasingly transitioning from offline alternatives to Singapore’s e–government websites. We collected data by surveying 214 e-government website users at a large university. After controlling for various factors, we analyzed 185 responses using the shorter version of SERVQUAL, a multidimensional research tool designed to measure consumer expectations and perceptions.

Applications

Focus - Application pour les marques
First, managers should note that though users have a high tolerance for deficiencies in e-government websites, the intention to continuing using a site is stronger if users’ perception of the service quality is high. Thus, managers should try to enhance the usability of their website. Second, users’ expectations and continued-use intentions are linearly related, so managers should advertise their site’s functions to manage expectations. Third, managers should ensure that service quality meets or exceeds expected service quality; the inverse could lead to a decline in continued use. Finally, managers should note that users will tolerate service that is below their expectations only within limits. Hence, managers should focus on enhancing the usability of the website for dissatisfied users. One suggestion: a single unified portal to access all services would increase a site’s utility. Managers could also encourage users to explore e-government websites through contests and quizzes. All of this would help users to have a better understanding of the sites’ functionalities and limitations, leading to higher tolerance levels.
Based on an interview with Shirish C. Srivastava of HEC Paris, on his article “Using Polynomial Modeling to Understand Service Quality in E-Government Websites” (MIS Quarterly, September 2019), co-written with Rohit Nishant of the FSA ULaval and Thompson S.H. Teo of the National University of Singapore.

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