This chapter analyzes the “impact” of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on local government officials’ policy decision-making. Specifically, this chapter answers to what extent they use the Internet to communicate and obtain information and to what extent do their online interactions with “citizens” influence their policy decisions. A national sample of elected local government officials from the United States were surveyed regarding their ICT use and their interactions with stakeholders. The principal findings of the chapter are that, while officials are making extensive use of ICTs to communicate with actors and obtain information, citizens have more influence on policy decisions via offline media.
Concomitant with “the rise of the network society,” local governments across the United States have invested considerable resources in Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and the development of electronic government (e-government) systems (Klotz, 2004; Brown and Shelhin, 2005). At the same time, the Internet is said to facilitate interactions between government officials and “citizens”2 (Budge, 1996; Webber and Loumakis, 2003). This chapter investigates the impact of these interactions on policy-making in American local governments. In doing so, this chapter goes to the heart of discussions in the e-government and electronic participation literature regarding the possibility for electronic democracy (e-democracy). The viability of e-democracy depends not only on electronic participation (e-participation) but also responsiveness from government officials to this participation. Simply stated, the question this chapter asks and addresses is: even if new ICTs are expanding political participation, does this increase citizen influence in government?
Typically political participation is considered from the perspective of outside the political system looking in. Hence, it focuses on who participates and how. A number of authors have weighed in on whether and to what extent the Internet can be said to increase political participation (Jensen, Daniziger, and Venkatesh, 2007; Muhlberger, 2004; Hill and Hughes, 1998; Bimber, 2003; Best and Kruger, 2005). This chapter reverses the perspective by considering political participation from the inside out: that is, from the perspective of elected officials. In particular, it focuses on officials’ use of the Internet to interact with citizens, and the extent to which their use of the Internet increases the role of citizens’ voices in policy decision-making.
Today politics takes place in a highly mediated space. Elected officials in the network societies of advanced industrial democracies are finding themselves in increasingly complicated communication environments (Crozier, 2007). They have at their disposal access to the mass media as well as more narrowly targeted communications they can transmit and receive from various public segments. The creation of a political event in this age depends on media to give it life. As Manuel Castells writes, “What does not exist in the media does not exist in the public mind…. Therefore a political message is necessarily a media message” (Castells, 2007: 241). While all forms interaction are mediated whether they be face-to-face or communicated on television, the multidirectionality of the Internet and broadcast media connects a message with the general public. Members of the public however are not only consumers of mediatized political messages, they are also producers, particularly through the Internet (Castells, 2007; Crozier, 2008).