Local officials lean on e-mail

Pew report: Digital Town Hall

Nearly 90 percent of locally elected officials use e-mail and the Internet daily to solicit constituent opinions, promote policies and facilitate debates, according to a new national report.

The findings — released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in partnership with the National League of Cities — show e-mail has become a useful and convenient tool for many mayors, city council members and other local representatives. Eighty-two percent of online local officials use e-mail to communicate with citizens, while 60 percent do so weekly and 21 percent daily.

Although there have been some examples that e-mail has boosted civic participation, it's not clear it has enhanced democracy. Only 14 percent of officials said e-mail was the means of communication that carried the most weight for them. Meetings and visits, telephone calls, and letters were more preferable.

"I always hesitate to say e-mail or any technology has a big effect on democracy," said Elena Larsen, a Pew research fellow and a co-author of the report, titled "Digital Town Hall: How local officials use the Internet and the civic benefits they cite from dealing with constituents online."

But e-mail does have "some democratizing effects," according to the report. "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."

Larsen said one finding that surprised her was that many local officials are part-time workers and some use personal e-mail accounts in their official duties. She also said local officials are more likely to find targeted mass e-mail campaigns more useful than their congressional counterparts.

"I was surprised that there was some value in them," she said, adding that national-level politicians often disregard mass e-mail campaigns because of their volume and anonymity.

Several other findings about the use of e-mail at the local level include:

* 73 percent of online officials said it helped them better understand public opinion.

* 56 percent said its use has improved their relations with community groups.

* 54 percent said they've heard from citizens they had not heard from before.

* 32 percent were persuaded by e-mail campaigns at least in part about the merits regarding policy.

But Larsen said boosting civic participation via e-mail and the Internet shouldn't come from the government but from neighborhood, church and civic groups. Half of the Internet users, she said, still don't know their local governments have Web sites even though 80 percent of governments do.

For the study, Pew randomly sampled 2,000 local elected officials drawn from the NLC database earlier this year. Mayors, city council and other board officials and other representatives from 520 cities, with populations ranging from about 10,000 to 3.5 million, responded to the survey.

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