The E-Citizen in Planning: U.S. Municipalities’ Views of Who Participates Online

The E-Citizen in Planning: U.S. Municipalities’ Views of Who Participates Online

Maria Manta Conroy, Jennifer Evans-Cowley
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-929-3.ch011
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Municipalities that plan have both a legal obligation and a professional directive to incorporate citizens into the planning process, but garnering sufficient and diverse citizen participation is often a struggle. Online participation tools as a component of e-government provide a potential venue for enhancing the participation process. However, e-government participation raises challenges pertaining to trust, exclusion, and responsiveness. This chapter contributes to the understanding of these issues by analyzing how municipalities in the U.S. view the e-participant. The analysis is based on an ongoing longitudinal study that examines planning department web sites for U.S. cities with 2000 census populations of 50,000 or more. The authors’ findings highlight respondents’ views of online tools as a means to further efficiency and citizen satisfaction, rather than as a means by which to potentially enhance discussion of community issues.
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Local governments engage their citizens to provide them with information and gain support for policy initiatives, to identify unforeseen concerns, and to recognize potential conflicts (Conroy & Berke, 2004; Conroy & Gordon, 2004; Wild & Marshall, 1999). Questions remain, however, on how best to engage citizens in local planning efforts when work, family, and other issues constrain both time and interest (Chess & Purcell, 1999; Day, 1997). While planners are obligated to at least inform citizens of and, preferably, to engage them on land use issues through, for example, the comprehensive planning process, it is often difficult to get input (Conroy & Gordon, 2004). This lack of active participation has created a challenge for city planners, who are responsible for engaging citizens in making decisions about the future of their communities (Brody, Godschalk, & Burby, 2004; Laurian, 2004).

The Internet has transformed the manner in which people get news and information, shop, find entertainment, and interface with their government (Waldon, 2006). In the 2008 U.S. presidential election campaign, a survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that “46% of all adults are using the internet, email, or phone text messaging for political purposes” (Smith & Rainie, 2008, p. 2). Another work by that same Project noted that “the Internet is the second most popular way for Americans to contact their government” (Dimitrova & Chen, 2006, p. 174). This increased use of the Internet is global, crossing Europe, Africa, and Asia (see, e.g., Wohlers, 2009; Tiamiyu & Ogunsola, 2008; Kalu, 2007; Paul, 2007; and Holliday & Kwok, 2004). For example, according to Wohlers (2009), “In 2000, the federal government in Germany initiated a series of policy initiatives … to spread the implementation of e-government throughout all levels of government” (p. 112). Local governments in the U.S. and elsewhere have been increasingly adopting applications ranging from simple document delivery to more complex interactive online mapping in order to increase responsiveness and community input and to enhance community renewal (Al-Kodmany, 1999; Conroy & Evans-Cowley, 2006; Kingston, 2007; Lee et al., 2005). Therefore, incorporation of information and communication technology (ICT) into public planning processes represents an area of great promise in which better relationships between government and its citizenry can be built (Lodge, 2003; Weber et al., 2003).

While some studies have suggested that access to the Internet for information and local government services may increase local participation levels, there is little clear empirical evidence one way or the other (Komito, 2007, p. 81). Local governments across the U.S. have been increasing online information and participation opportunities (see, e.g., Evans-Cowley & Conroy, 2004; Evans-Cowley & Conroy, 2009). However, the impact of technology on increasing civic participation with governments remains unclear at best (Komito, 2007). Additionally, there is little insight on how governments themselves perceive the influence of the technology on participation.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Planning: A government activity focused on policies and projects related to community land. Typically includes housing, economic development, environment, land use, and transportation considerations.

Digital Divide: The gap between those who can access and benefit from digital technology and those who cannot. It may be affected by a multitude of factors, including income, age, race, physical and mental abilities, and geographical location.

Wiki: An Internet-based webpage (or collection of webpages) to which users can contribute comments or edits to proposed content.

Comprehensive Plan: A document typically generated by a municipal planning department in conjunction with citizens and public officials that reviews community social, economic, and environmental trends and proposes a positive vision of the community based on land use, with related policies to achieve the vision.

Emoticon: A text or graphical portrayal of the tenor of a message as selected by its writer. A common emoticon is a smiley graphic or the use of colon + right parenthesis to indicate happiness or amusement.

Flaming: An often hostile exchange between Internet users in an online social dialogue venue. Exchanges may include insults and threats.

E-Government: A coordinated effort by a government (local, state, federal) to provide technology-enhanced and often Internet-based tools for citizens, businesses, and employees to increase government efficiency and effectiveness.

E-Participant: A community member who utilizes online tools to participate in planning or other government activities.

GIS (Geographic Information System): An electronically based mapping tool commonly used in planning that can capture, display, manage, and analyze spatial data.

Planning Department: An organizational unit within a municipal government that conducts planning activity. It is typically focused on determining appropriate use of land through adoption of general or comprehensive plan policies. A planning department is also responsible for the application of these policies, along with the requirements of codes and zoning regulations to permit approvals.

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