October 2, 2002

Digital Town Hall

How local officials use the Internet and the civic benefits they cite from dealing with constituents online

The first-ever survey of mayors and city council members of the National League of Cities about their use of the Internet shows that local officials have embraced the Internet as part of their official lives and most now use email to communicate with constituents.  In contrast to Congressional representatives, who have felt swamped by email and who often dismiss emails as not very meaningful, local officials find them useful. And local officials do not feel overwhelmed by the volume of incoming email. 

  • 88% of local elected officials in this broad national sample use email and the Internet in the course of their official duties.
  • 90% of online 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.
  • 61% of online local officials use email to communicate with citizens at least weekly.  21% do so every day.
  • 75% of online local officials use the Web for research and other purposes in course of their official duties at least weekly and 34% use it daily for such purposes.
  • 86% of online officials say they can handle all their email messages.

There is a clear civic payoff to Internet use at the local level as officials say they learn about constituents’ opinions and activities when they go online. More local groups are being heard and recognized at the local level thanks to email. Still, it is generally the case that while the use of email adds to the convenience and depth of civic exchanges, its use is not ushering a revolution in municipal affairs or local politics. 

  • 73% of online officials note that email with constituents helps 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 campaigns at least in part about the merits of a group’s argument on a policy question.
  • 21% agree that email lobbying campaigns have opened their eyes to “unity and strength of opinion” among constituents about which they have been previously unaware.
  • 61% of online officials agree that email can facilitate public debate. However, 38% say that email alone cannot carry the weight of the full debate on complex issues.

Email still lags behind more traditional communications media between local officials and citizens.

  • Online local officials are still more likely to cite phone calls (64%), letters (35%) and meetings (29%), rather than email, as the most common means citizens use to communicate with them. (These numbers add up to more than 100% because officials were allowed to give several answers.)
  • 24% of officials include email among the most common means used by citizens to contact them.
  • Online local officials are also 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.

Online local officials often use both official and personal email accounts for official business.  Officials in small cities are more likely than big-city officials to rely on personal accounts; big-city officials are more likely to rely on government-provided accounts. Those who make use of both government and personal email accounts do so for reasons of convenience for both themselves and their constituents.  Officials who work day jobs want to be available to their constituents during the day.  Others note it is easier to deal with their official emails at home. 

  • Although the majority of online local officials use Internet access provided by their cities and email accounts set up by their cities, only 30% rely on those accounts exclusively for their official duties.  Some 37% say they use both government and personal accounts, and 33% rely on personal accounts exclusively for their official business.

Acknowledgement of Partnership with the National League of Cities

This project was conceived and conducted in partnership with the National League of Cities (NLC).  We thank Chris Hoene, Bill Barnes, and all other NLC staff who assisted in preparing the survey, drawing the research sample, and encouraging member cities to participate.