by Suzanne Sears
Head, Government Documents Department, University of North Texas Libraries

Government agencies are continuing to increase the amount of service transactions they conduct online. Citizens who do not have computer access as well as those who are in need of assistance in understanding how to use government web sites are turning to their local library for help. It is necessary for librarians to be pro-active by setting up e-government service policies and training their staff on how to use the more popular e-government sites.

The web sites listed below are intended to assist library staff in providing e-government services to their patrons. The first section is a list of popular federal web sites and some of the transactions that they provide online. The next section offers some things to consider when providing e-government services. The last section contains a list of sites for further reading on the issue of e-government and libraries.

If you are in need of assistance in finding government information, there are experts in over 1,200 libraries nationwide. These libraries are part of the Federal Depository Library Program. You can find your nearest depository library and the name of the depository library coordinator by using the Federal Depository Library Directory at http://catalog.gpo.gov/fdlpdir/FDLPdir.jsp .

Federal E-Government Web Sites

  • Federal Government Portals
    These web sites help arrange government information by subject and can be a good starting point for the novice in navigating government web sites.
    1. http://www.usa.gov/
    National portal to federal government information and services.
    Has a “Get It Done Online” section that indexes federal online services.
    2. http://www.govbenefits.gov/
    Portal to government benefits for individuals.
    3. http://forms.gov/
    Index to many of the government forms.
    4. http://www.business.gov/
    Index to services for small businesses.
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
    http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis

    Online services include setting up appointments, checking the status of your case, and a naturalization self test. There is also a section for employers to verify eligibility for employment of individuals.

    Individuals must schedule appointments online.

  • Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services—prescription drug plan finder
    http://www.medicare.gov/

    Online services include a prescription drug plan finder, a long term care planning tool, and requests for replacement cards.

    Several useful tools available to compare hospitals, nursing homes, and home health agencies.

  • FAFSA: Free application for federal student aid
    http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/

    Online services include applying, checking status, viewing results, and amending applications.

    Has a “Before Beginning a FAFSA” section

    Individuals must apply for and receive a PIN number before proceeding with the FAFSA application.

    Individuals can apply for PIN numbers online as well as look up the numerical codes for the schools they wish to send the FAFSA results to.

  • Federal Emergency Management Agency
    http://www.fema.gov/

    Online services include applying for disaster relief assistance and viewing floodplain maps for a given street address.

    Has a “Step 1 Before you Apply” section

  • Internal Revenue Service
    http://www.irs.gov/

    Online services include checking the status of your refund or economic stimulus check, finding and ordering tax forms, searching the list of recognized non-profits for the charitable contribution deduction, and e-filing your taxes.

  • Social Security Administration
    http://www.ssa.gov/

    Online services include updating your address, checking on your benefits, a retirement calculator, and applying for benefits.

    Has an entire web page devoted to the online services http://www.ssa.gov/onlineservices/

  • United States Postal Service
    http://www.usps.com/

    Online services include purchasing postage, calculating postage, and looking up zip codes.

  • U.S. Department of State—passports and visas
    http://travel.state.gov/passport/passport_1738.html

    Online services include renewing passports and checking on the status of a passport application.

Tips and Issues to be Addressed

Are you prepared to help someone with e-government services at your library? Here are some tips and some questions to address when providing e-government services:

  • Most government agencies require an email address. Be sure that the patron has a valid email account and knows the address before you begin. Nothing is more frustrating than working with someone for 2 hours to get through a complicated transaction and then not being able to complete it because they do not have an email.
  • Look for a place on the agency web site that lists the “Before You Begin” steps. Some government sites provided a printable instruction sheet that can be filled out prior to beginning the online transaction. Having this filled out before you begin online can be very beneficial. It will decrease the amount of time it takes to complete the transaction and help provide a little more privacy for the patron. The form can be filled out in a private area where their personal information is not as vulnerable as it would be spread out at a computer workstation.
  • What kind of protection will you provide for individuals filling out personal information on public computers? Policies and signs need to be in place warning patrons that they are using a public computer. Some libraries are looking at erecting privacy screens around designated stations for transactions such as job applications.
  • Look for an “online services” section on the agency web site or a “forms and publications” section.
  • Most agency web sites have FAQ and “Contact Us” sections
  • Warn your patron if you have time limits on computer usage. Some transactions can take more than an hour to complete. Usually these can be saved and retrieved at a later date, but not always.
  • If your library has time limits on computer usage then a policy needs to be established regarding extending that time if necessary to complete the e-government transactions.
  • Remember not to give advice no matter how trivial it may seem. Librarians have always been warned about giving legal or medical advice, however, many do not think twice about advising a patron on which tax form he/she should fill out. Directing the patron to the instructions on how to decide which form to use is fine, but actually determining which form to use needs to be left up to them.

Further Reading

State and Federal E-Government in the United States, 2008
http://www.brookings.edu/reports/2008/0826_egovernment_west.aspx

E-Government and Public Libraries: Current Status Meeting Report, Findings, and Next Steps
http://www.ii.fsu.edu/announcements/e-gov2006/egov_report.pdf

ALA E-Government Services Wiki
http://www.wo.ala.org/egovservices

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Original Publication Date: 
December 1, 2008
Legacy Article Number: 
340