October 2, 2002

City officials and the Internet

Most mayors and city council members use the Internet on the job and many say email has brought them closer to their constituents

Washington (Oct. 2) – Fully 88% of local elected officials use the Internet in the course of their official duties and many say their online activities have helped them learn more about local public opinion, stay in touch better with community groups, and encounter new voices in local civic life.

The first-ever survey of mayors and city council members of the National League of Cities by the Pew Internet & American Life Project shows a surprisingly high level of online activity at the local level:

  • 90% of wired local officials use email in their official duties at least weekly and 61% use it daily for such purposes.
  • 79% of all municipal officials in this survey say they have received email from citizens or local groups about civic issues. Some 25% receive email from constituents every day.

    This rapid growth of Internet use is also injecting new life into community affairs. More citizens and local groups are being heard and recognized thanks to email.

  • 73% of online officials note that email exchanges with constituents help them better understand public opinion.
  • 56% of online officials say their use of email has improved their relations with community groups.
  • 54% of online officials say that their use of email has brought them into contact with citizens from whom they had not heard before.
  • 32% have been persuaded by email lobbying campaigns at least in part about the merits of a group’s argument on a policy question.

    “We are now beginning to see a clear civic payoff to Internet use,” said Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet Project. “Government officials have a reputation of being slow to adopt Internet tools, but this survey shows how most local officials have caught up and are using new technologies to do their jobs.”

    It is still the case, though, that citizens will carry more clout with local officials if they use traditional methods of dealing with City Hall. Local officials who use the Internet are most likely to cite meetings (55%), phone calls (49%) and letters (27%), rather than email, as the kinds of contacts from constituents that carry the most weight with them. Only 14% said that they assign a significant amount of weight to email.

    “Internet use is part of the everyday lives of municipal leaders, just as it is for tens of millions of other Americans,” said Elena Larsen, Research Fellow at the Pew Internet Project and principal author of the report entitled, “Digital Town Hall.” She continued: “Many of these citizen-legislators find email to be a convenient tool, though in most cases they think of it as a supplement to the other kinds of contact they have with their constituents.”

    Some 520 randomly selected local elected officials from around the country completed the survey. They represent all kinds of cities and the overall demographic composition of the group closely mirrors the composition of the universe of municipal officials throughout the United States. The sample is not a fully representative one, but officials at the National League of Cities and the Pew Internet Project believe it is a very good accounting of the range of experience and beliefs among municipal officials.