Meet your mayor...online
- By John Monroe
- Jun 04, 2001
Hundreds of Roswell, Ga., residents can now reach Mayor Jere Wood with a
single click — the reply button in their e-mail program.
Each week, Wood sends out short electronic newsletters on hot topics, such
as the new budget or changes to zoning laws. Clearly, it's a political tool
— or as Wood calls it, "a way to campaign every day." But the reply button
adds another, perhaps even more important, dimension.
"I am a liaison between the public and the city government, and you've
got to communicate with [your constituents] to do that job — and part of
that is feedback," he said.
Public officials across the country are discovering that the Internet
can bring them closer than ever to people in their communities. They began
several years ago by posting meeting minutes, press releases and other information on their Web sites.
Now, for little money and little effort, they are using the Internet
to give people more of a voice in government — maybe even reaching people
who would never show up at city council meetings or pick up the phone to
call. Like Wood, they're using e-mail newsletters, as well as discussion
forums, online comment forms, surveys and even simple e-mail links to town
In Roswell, the newsletter seems to be resonating with residents — it
has grown from 400 subscribers last year to about 1,100 today. Although
not all issues motivate people to write back, others do — like last year
when Wood asked whether City Council members should get a raise. That prompted 50 out of about 600 subscribers to fire off a note.
Some public-policy visionaries believe that such electronic interaction
could, in time, become an ongoing dialogue with the public. With such an
"interactive democracy," as it's called, citizens could have a much more
direct influence on government than they do now.
But that day could be a long time coming. Communities are discovering
that, as cheap and easy as the technology is, it can be as difficult to
lure people online as it is to get them out to city hall.
Open for Business
Many cities believe the Internet could address long-standing problems
about the accessibility of government because the Internet, unlike city
hall, never closes.
Whether it's via e-mail or an online discussion forum, the Internet
makes it possible to carry on a conversation with someone without interacting
directly. E-mail has made such interaction acceptable and, in some cases,
desirable, public officials say.
That was the conclusion of a study by the media and communications group
in the Virginia Beach, Va., city manager's office. They discovered that
people view e-mail as analogous to more traditional methods of one-on-one
communications, and they recommended that the city look for more ways to
use e-mail to increase communications among citizens, government and city
"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," said Diane Roche, team leader of the work group and
assistant to the city manager for media and communications.
Internet-based communications are most appealing to people whose workday
makes it difficult to get to city hall or to city council meetings. Now
they can leave messages at odd hours, and public officials can respond in
the same way. That's a real help whether they are dealing with a small-town
council member who also has a day job or a full-time mayor with a packed
Often, the easiest way to get the ear of an elected official is to attend
council meetings, but not everyone can do that, said Bob Buckhorn, a Tampa,
Fla., City Council member. "I have people who are working two jobs — they
can't arrange their lives to be convenient for my schedule."
In 1995, when Buckhorn was elected, the city did not provide council
members with Web sites, so he set up his own. "I wasn't willing to wait
for government to catch up to the technology. I just wanted to get out there
and be conversant in the same form and fashion as my constituents are,"
Beyond providing general information and an e-mail link, Buckhorn's
site encourages people to "vote" on particular issues being considered by
the council, such as a community investment tax to fund new projects. Buckhorn
also asks constituents to assess his performance in particular areas, such
as improving ethics at city hall (49 percent of 133 people approved of
"It gives me a feel for the pulse of the community," said Buckhorn,
who eventually hopes to stage an electronic town hall meeting, the political
version of an online chat session.
The Internet also appears able to draw out residents who won't set foot
in a public forum, no matter when it's held. "Trying to get people to come
out for public meetings is like trying to get them to go in for root canals,"
said Wilma Smith, assistant director of transportation for Arlington, Texas.
A Web site also can serve as an "overflow" room for city hall. Last
spring, after a proposed transportation plan drew 350 people to a public
meeting, Arlington set up an Internet survey, which provided an outlet for
another 150 or so people, many of whom visited the site between 10 p.m.
and 2 a.m., Smith said.
E-mail may not have the same immediacy as appearing before the city
council, but it gets the message across. In most cases, e-mail messages
are forwarded to council members or even printed out and included in the
packets they receive before public hearings.
"We know they are using them because not infrequently they will allude
to these e-mails they receive [during the meetings]," said Keith Kurtz,
Internet systems coordinator for Santa Monica, Calif.
That everyone agrees on the potential benefits of Internet communication
only makes it more perplexing that so little of it is happening.
In many cases, agencies asking for comments or setting up forums are
lucky to receive a couple dozen responses, if that many. San Diego, for
example, received 10 to 20 comments last year when officials posted a form
along with the proposed budget, and this year was not looking much better.
In contrast, anywhere from 20 to 100 people will come out to hear the
city manager at public budget meetings, which the city stages 15 or more
times each year. "That's where the most interaction with the public comes
from," said Arlo Mag.penay, associate management analyst in the city's financial
The city manager always makes a pitch for the online budget and comment
form, but the questions and comments generally come out at the meetings,
Magpenay said. Still, the Internet remains one of the best ways of getting
information out to the public in a short time, he said.
Online discussion forums in Marion, Iowa, also have attracted little
The forums, organized by each city department, enable people to ask
questions or make comments about city business and view previous comments
and responses. None of the 12 "conferences" has received more than nine
messages, and several — including the fire department, the library, parks
and recreation, and planning and development — have received none, even
after several months online.
"I think it's valuable, [but] I am a little disappointed we haven't
had more interaction," said City Manager Jeff Schott, noting that many of
the participants only request city services.
Schott said part of the problem could be that residents just are not
aware of the forums. But the city has a host of questions about the role
of the Internet in government and what services people really want. They
created an e-government task force to study the issue, and they included
Internet questions in a survey mailed to residents in March.
It's not that people are not on the Web viewing budgets, council agendas
and other documents, government Webmasters say. It's just that most people
seem more interested in reporting problems — potholes, broken streetlights
— than in taking part in the democratic process.
Lack of participation was a real paradox for Kent, Wash., a Seattle
suburb. Over the winter, city officials began putting together a plan to
deliver services online and wanted to involve residents. As a first step
into e-government, they decided to use the Internet to ask for suggestions
and recruit volunteers to help in the planning. What seemed a reasonable
idea fell flat.
No one filled out the comment form and only one person volunteered,
according to Kent's Webmaster, Dan Meeker. Residents seem more interested
in reporting potholes and receiving city council agendas via e-mail than
in providing feedback online, Meeker said.
But the lack of participation is not really surprising, said Gila Bronner,
president of Bronner Group LLC, a Chicago-based government consulting firm
specializing in e-government.
"Giving citizens the opportunity to chat and give input is a nice concept,
but I don't think we govern that way," Bronner said.
However appealing the idea of an interactive democracy is, "we elect
representatives to govern for us," she said. In most cases, people are not
looking to influence those representatives on a regular basis.
All that changes, though, when the topic is controversial or hits close
The budget is a good example, said Roswell's Wood. "I can spend $40
million, and if I'm not raising taxes, they don't care. If I were to discuss
raising taxes, I would be overwhelmed," he said.
Likewise, questions about transportation or development tend to generate
a lot of buzz. Typically, such topics cause a spike in responses, rather
than a steady increase, city officials say.
"You can generate a lot of discussion over a short period of time, then
these discussions will fade out or degenerate and you terminate them," said
Santa Monica's Kurtz.
Of course, the more controversial the topic, the louder the buzz. When
Buckhorn co-chaired a statewide initiative to prohibit people from buying
guns at gun shows without a background check, more than 2,000 separate comments came into his Web site (58 percent supported the bill, which eventually
passed). That's 10 times the number of hits on most other issues.
In part, that's because some people voted multiple times, forcing Buckhorn
to change the Web site to reject follow-up votes. But the spike in traffic
generally reflected "the sensitivity of the issue and the extreme feelings
on both sides," he said.
Buckhorn also saw his Web site overwhelmed by traffic from across the
country, as national lobbying groups caught wind of the issue. When the
stakes are high, he discovered, the Web inevitably adds a national or even
global dimension to local politics.
Virginia Beach stumbled on the same lesson last year, when the City
Council was considering an expansion of the city's marine science museum.
The proposal included the option of adding a dolphin tank, a source of controversy
in numerous cities, which brought thousands of e-mail messages a week to
"You can take a local issue, which, five or 10 years ago, might have
gotten some letters from residents, and now you can deluge the council,"
said David Sullivan, chief information officer for Virginia Beach.
The council ultimately decided not to go forward with the plan, citing
the construction costs. "But the animal rights issue expanded the conversation,
and the Internet certainly played a part in that," he said.
The specter of an e-mail deluge concerns some public officials. Internet
feedback already has increased the workload for Virginia Beach council members,
even without the controversy, Sullivan said. Each week, council members
receive printouts of all correspondence, and now with all the e-mail messages
coming in, that stack can run two inches thick. "It's information overload,"
It's especially perplexing for mayors and council members who also have
day jobs. On the one hand, e-mail is a great way for people to reach them
outside public meetings. But it also requires that officials take the time
to read their messages. That's a problem for Tim Clark, a member of the
Kent City Council.
"I don't read my e-mail every day," Clark said. "People who read their
e-mail every day have their e-mail on a computer at the place where they
work. Our office is just a place where you come to pick up your mail."
But it may just be a matter of time for most cities before their residents
get into the habit of communicating via the Internet, particularly in regions
with high Internet access, such as Roswell. After two years of providing
e-mail links, "it's a real burden to keep up," said Kelly Collins, community
One problem is the expectation that each e-mail message will get an
immediate response, Collins said. Roswell's Web site carries a warning that,
due to the high volume of e-mail messages, they can't guarantee a personal
response. And if citizens require an answer, they must provide their name
and contact information. Even then, city officials must still plow through
all the e-mail messages to sort out which ones need responses.
"I think for a while," Collins said, "we will struggle with information