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.
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system fails to provide the desired service, users can revert to systems already in place, even if they are somewhat outdated.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.
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.