Link to people could be online

E-government, if taken beyond online services, can help city hall reconnect with the community, according to a report released in March.

The report, commissioned by Virginia Beach, Va., urges the city to use the Internet and e-mail to keep people informed about decisions being made and to make it easier for them to take part in the debate.

The Citizen Communication and Interrelationships Work Group found that nearly a third of the community thought the city was not interested in their opinions. More than half said they did not know how to make their voices heard.

The Internet is a ready-made public forum, said Diane Roche, team leader of the work group and assistant to the city manager for media and communications. E-mail, discussion forums and other online exchanges can improve the dialogue between the public and elected officials, while a city's Web site can provide unmatched capacity for publishing information, she said.

Since the city manager first requested the report more than a year ago, Virginia Beach formed the E-Gov Citizen Commission to look into these issues. The commission is on the right track, but "we want them to take e-government to the next level, so it is relationship building and not just service-based," Roche said.

The work group made a small leap of faith by recommending greater use of the Internet, she said. In the first of a few surveys last February, the group did not find a huge demand for having information delivered via the Internet or e-mail.

But in a June poll, the group found that more than three-fourths of the community has access to the Internet at home or at work. Then, a subsequent survey and some focus groups found growing interest in the Internet as a source of information.

"It's obvious the Internet is going to be one of the major tools of communication in the future, and now we are just trying to position ourselves to use it properly," Roche said.

The report "Connections for a Lifetime: Building Community Trust and Relationships," is available at www.vbgov.com/Media/docs/citcommrpt.pdf (PDF).

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