PCs will make it easy to explore and participate in issues that touch lives.

Few benefits of online inter-activity are of such potential importance - or are so often over-looked - as the Internet's promise for improving democracy.Personal computers hooked to interactive networks will empower citizens to participate in the democratic process and civic affairs with an ease and immediacy almost unheard of today.

The very nature of political dialogue will evolve as it becomes common for people to access public information and interact electronically with government agencies, as well as with each other.

Public policy involves tradeoffs that aren't always obvious, especially when the media focus on sound bites rather than substance and subtleties.

The Internet is the first medium that will make it easy for citizens to explore and participate in the issues of the day, as much or as little as they like.

This will put the citizen in a fundamentally more powerful position than ever before.

It will strengthen democracy and provide lots of conveniences, too. Say you're at home and you wonder, "What are the crime statistics for my neighborhood?" Or, "If I went down to court this afternoon, what would I see?"

It's not easy to get this kind of information now. But imagine that your computer or television screen could display pictures of government buildings, and you could click on the police headquarters to see crime statistics, or the courthouse to see the day's docket.

This kind of capability is coming, and when it arrives it will make it far easier to get government information.

When you get a property tax bill these days, you may wonder whether it's fair and what your neighbors pay.

Property tax records are public information in many places, but getting the facts usually requires a trip to an office - and probably some patience, too.

Someday, your computer will respond to your spoken request: "Please list the homes in my neighborhood and their tax bills."

It really will be that simple.

Existing forms of information about government - newspapers, TV, radio and government publications - won't lose their importance.

But the Internet will add something new. It will enable people to delve more deeply into public records and topics of interest, listen to an important political debate and, perhaps most importantly, exchange opinions with others about those issues.

Personal computers and information networks are empowering tools. They give individuals many of the same kinds of advantages that once were available only to big companies and organizations.

For example, a kind of software program called an "agent" will watch the Internet, keeping an eye trained for information that might interest you.

Today only large companies and special-interest groups tend to invest in the resources necessary to routinely track issues. They employ lobbyists and attorneys to watch out for legislation or proposed agency rules that might impact their affairs.

Ordinary citizens can't afford this, which is one reason that special interests have disproportionate influence in many corners of government.

But your software agent on the Internet will inform you if a government agency is contemplating something that will affect you - if an apartment developer has filed plans to build next door to your home, or if your child's school could be closed due to budget cuts.

Governments are a source of enormous amounts of information, most of which never reaches even those citizens who would be most keenly interested in it.

The information output is so great that many countries have their own printing offices. In England, it's called Her Majesty's Stationery Office. In the United States, it's called the Government Printing Office (GPO).

The GPO is the world's largest printer. It offers thousands of books, reports, pamphlets and other publications written by federal agencies.

The office will give or sell you everything from children's reading lists to the Congressional Record, but you have to be willing to take the time and trouble to sift through the available material, order it and wait for it.

It's hardly convenient compared to what the Internet can offer, although some of the GPO's content is now up on the World Wide Web (at http://www.gpo.gov).

A lot of information also flows from citizens to governments. The amount of time individuals spend filling out forms, waiting in lines and holding on the telephone is staggering.

The Internet can change much of that by letting people interact with government electronically at their convenience.

Voting is an important example of an information activity that could be improved with the help of the Internet.

Where I live, we vote for judges, but I often don't know who deserves my ballot, since little information about their judicial records is readily available.

I look forward to an Internet-based alternative. Instead of voting in person or mailing in an absentee ballot, I expect to be able to vote from my PC.

While pondering the choices at my leisure, I'll be able to see what the candidates say about themselves, listen to speeches they've given, check their judicial records, read or watch news reports, survey their endorsements or the recommendations of nonpartisan groups, or even ask individuals I trust who they intend to vote for - all electronically.

The result will be a better-informed vote and probably greater participation.

I'm an optimist about information technology because I've seen how it can improve the effectiveness of businesses and how it's beginning to positively influence education.

It's no secret that many governments could be more efficient and responsive, and I'm confident that PCs and the Internet will play a welcome role in improving civic life and political dialogue around the world.

Questions may be sent to Bill Gates by electronic mail. The address is askbill microsoft.com. (Please note that the word AT in parentheses has been used instead of the symbol, untransmittable to many newspaper systems.) Or write to him care of The New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., 122 E. 42nd St., New York, N Y 10168. Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Bill Gates regrets that unpublished questions cannot be answered individually.