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E-government and you: What you can find online


By Elizabeth Wasserman

 
Alice Marshall admits to being a procrastinator. She’s always registering her car or paying her taxes at the very last minute. That’s why Marshall, who runs a busy public relations agency in Virginia, is so ecstatic that more and more government services are now offered over the Internet.

“It’s one less trip you have to make, one less thing to put in the mail,” says Marshall, who blogs about electronic government services web sites, a.k.a. e-government. So far Marshal says she has used e-government sites to pay property taxes, register her car and download federal tax forms — and that’s just the beginning.

The public services available online from federal, state and local governments now numbers in the thousands of services from coast-to-coast, although no one really knows the exact count. During the past two years, growth among users of e-government services has been in double digits, according to Paul Taylor, chief strategist for the Center for Digital Government, a national research and advisory institute. The majority of people who use e-government conduct their business after hours, when it’s convenient for them, he says.

With a quick search of the web, here are some of the most popular e-government services you can likely find and use too:

1. Do your business with local government

County, city, and other local governments now offer a variety of online services that can save you the trouble of traveling down to city hall or elsewhere and waiting in line at a counter. Local government officials realize that they can provide more service to citizens often at lower costs to taxpayers via e-government initiatives and beef up revenue collection at the same time, Taylor says.

One of the most popular municipal e-government services allows motorists to pay parking tickets online. It’s now offered from Portland, Me., to New York City to Indianapolis and Berkeley, Calif. In addition to collecting fines, some local governments also let citizens search an online database of complaints against home contractors, register for camps, and reserve library books over the Internet. School districts are also getting in the mix. Some now offer parents the ability to receive e-mails alerting them to snow closings or even allow them to electronically add money to their children’s lunch cards.

2. Interact with your state

You can find many state governments by simply looking up utah.gov, virginia.gov, alaska.gov and so on (although some state web sites take the form of state.ny.gov). Taylor says that one-third of driver license renewals are done by states online these days. In addition, online applications for vital records — such as birth or death or marriage certificates — have grown in volume 16 percent in the last year.

In Utah, citizens can apply for deer and elk hunting permits or fishing licenses online. 44 states allow you to make reservations at state parks online, such as a camp site in California’s Big Basin Redwoods. Of the 41 states that collect a state individual income tax, 86 percent now offer online filing and payment. Those states reported that more than half of citizens paid state taxes online, with 21 states now providing free software so you can calculate the amount of taxes that you owe.

3. Network with the feds

One of the most useful and easy to navigate U.S. government online resource is FirstGov, according to Darrell West, director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University, where a team of researchers examined 1,629 state and federal sites. FirstGov is the federal government’s portal, where you can search for services by categories, such as Benefits and Grants or Voting and Elections. Under the Benefits section, check out the category, “Government May Owe You Money.”

Govbenefits.gov is another handy site that can direct you to resources if you lose a job, become a parent, or are affected by a natural disaster. The Social Security Administration site allows citizens to get quick or detailed estimates about how much they can expect to receive in monthly benefits when they retire. The Internal Revenue Service operates another useful site that allows citizens not only to file their taxes online but to try to sort out the complicated tax code with click-on topics, such as “Are You Due a Refund?” and downloadable forms.

Alice Marshall, for one, has used the IRS site when she’s waited until the last minute to do her taxes. “If you’re like me and you procrastinate, you can download them instantly,” she says, “From that point of view, it’s a real benefit.”

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