By Seulki Lee-Geiller and Abigail Alcala
Public trust in government is crucial for a functioning democratic society as it signifies a belief that government has the right to govern and make decisions on behalf of the population. E-government initiatives are said to play a vital role in helping governments improve the quality of communication with citizens, enhance the efficiency of government operations, and bolster the quality of public service delivery. It stands to reason that e-government initiatives would thus improve trust in government. However, research exploring the relationship between e-government and trust in government has returned mixed findings.
In this report, we explore the possibility that one factor contributing to the body of mixed findings concerns variation in the level of digital literacy, or internet and computer skills, among users. Specifically, we argue that accounting for individual levels of digital literacy can help explain why e-government is effective at building trust in some cases and not in others. To assess the validity of our argument, we draw on a representative sample of New Jersey residents collected by the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, which surveyed approximately 1,900 adults in New Jersey between June 14 and July 5, 2022. Using a series of multiple linear regression analyses, we find support for our argument, demonstrating a statistically significant association between residents’ positive perceptions of e-government effectiveness and their trust in the New Jersey government, with this relationship positively moderated by their level of digital literacy.
Overall, our study makes two important contributions to our understanding of the complex relationship among e-government use, citizens’ perceptions of government, and trust in government. First, we show that positive evaluations of e-government services, namely in terms of perceived effectiveness, are associated with greater trust in the state government. These results are novel because they suggest that efforts to not only improve e-government service quality, defined as perceived e-government effectiveness, but also improve the residents’ capacity in using those digital platforms, defined as digital literacy, can play a significant role in shaping trust in state government.
Second, our findings demonstrate that digital literacy helps to define relationships between the government and the public. As we demonstrate, the relationship between perceptions of e-government effectiveness and trust in government is weakest among those reporting lower levels of digital literacy. As governments increasingly rely on technology to engage and communicate with the public, digital literacy has come to play a prominent role in shaping who has access to government sevices as well as the extent to which government efforts to leverage technology to improve service provision works to the benefit of all.
From this perspective, our findings also highlight the importance of governments thinking critically about interventions that attempt to build trust and improve government responsiveness that may miss some segments of the population and, in turn, what can be done to ensure that the growing use of technology does not alienate them.