October 2, 2002

Digital Town Hall

The effect of Internet use and its ramifications

Conclusions

Some local governments are taking the lead in bringing the Internet into community life.  More local governments have Web sites than Americans are aware of.  And local officials are embracing email as a tool in their constituent relations, perhaps to a degree that many of their constituents do not fully appreciate. 

The scale of local government allows for two-way communications over email that may not be feasible at higher levels of government.  Online local officials say they have been quite able to handle the volume of email that they receive.  Furthermore, email allows officials to show a responsiveness unfettered by the time restraints of returning phone calls or the expense of preparing and mailing letters.  It also provides opportunity for outreach, rather than mere responsiveness, to the community.

But in many areas, email has a way to go in being considered a conduit for “serious” civic communications.  Perhaps email is “too easy” to use and is discounted by some officials as an inappropriate and ineffective tool for communicating with citizens.  While it is very useful for information gathering and sharing, it has yet to demonstrate a robust effect in consensus building and decision-making. 

Does this mean that email is just another communication tool that may speed up some information exchanges, but has no net effect on the local political scene? At first glance, it may seem that this is the case.  Given the small number of Americans who use the Web for local purposes, and even smaller number who are aware of email being used to engage local officials, those officials who do use the Internet to talk to citizens may be dealing with a political and technical elite.  The technical elite may disappear as more and more people come online to use email.  But the political elite – those who are sufficiently involved to initiate contact with local officials – are likely to remain a small and consistent group. 

Nonetheless, email does have some democratizing effects of its own.  It is an effective anonymizer, erasing racial and economic differences.  (The Santa Monica PEN network allowed homeless participants using free library terminals to have a voice in debates without betraying their status.)  It allows residents to find their own time for entering discussion.  In short, it reduces barriers to public participation, allowing citizens to investigate participation without undue time and expense.  While this by no means guarantees that politically apathetic individuals will suddenly gain a zeal for politics, it may allow some entry into local political life by those who would otherwise have neither the time nor the contacts.

Those officials who use email are to some degree participating in the reshaping of the local political base.  A majority (54%) noted that their use of email had brought them into contact with citizens from whom they had not heard before.  And another group (21%) found in mass email campaigns a sense of unity and purpose of which they had been previously unaware.  Email is bringing greater connectivity to and appreciation of local constituencies.  So local officials who use email are facilitating the entrance of new political participants to American cities.