Meet your mayor...online

Can the keyboard replace the public podium?

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 Web sites.

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 council.

"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 schedule.

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," he said.

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 his work).

"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.

Disappointing Returns

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 management office.

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 notice.

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.

Hot Buttons

All that changes, though, when the topic is controversial or hits close to home.

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 council members.

"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," he said.

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 information manager.

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 overload."

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.