Online Participation and Digital Divide: An Empirical Evaluation of U.S. Midwestern Municipalities

Online Participation and Digital Divide: An Empirical Evaluation of U.S. Midwestern Municipalities

Stephen K. Aikins (University of South Florida, USA) and Meena Chary (University of South Florida, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-699-0.ch030
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This chapter examines whether government officials’ deployment of resources to broaden Internet access and participation is influenced by officials’ communication preferences and socioeconomic factors. The concern that the Internet explosion has alienated and marginalized some citizens from the democratic process and civic life has generated intellectual debate and led governments and other sectors to take measures to bridge the gap created by the digital divide. Although several studies have been conducted on the subject, few are yet to be done on the influence of government officials’ communication preferences and socioeconomic factors on resource deployment to broaden access and participation. Drawing on the theories of technological diffusion and determinism, as well as developmental and democratic theories, we argue that officials’ communication preferences and socioeconomic factors will be important in broadening Internet access and participation. Survey data, local government Web site contents and census data were analyzed. Results reveal that officials are not eager to commit resources to activities that broaden access and participation because they generally prefer to communicate with citizens via traditional channels. In addition, the sizes of the elderly and Black population, as well as the relative affluence of cities, do influence the presence of deliberative features on city Web sites.
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Introduction And Background

The purpose of this chapter is to determine whether government officials’ deployment of resources to broaden Internet access and online participation are influenced by the officials’ communication preferences as well as by socioeconomic factors. Well documented inequalities in access to and use of information technology (IT) such as the computer and the Internet reflect existing patterns of social stratification (Bradbrook & Fisher 2004, Bromley 2004, Steyaert 2002, Foley et al. 2003, Eamon 2004). For example, high-income, Caucasian, married, and well educated individuals have more access to IT compared to low-income, African American and Latino, unmarried, and less-educated individuals (National Telecommunications and Information Administration [NTIA] (2000, 2002).

Some scholars argue although the initial period of Internet adoption temporarily widened social inequality, this gap is narrowed at a rapid pace as the penetration of the Internet becomes saturated in society (Compaine 2001a, 2001b, Powell 2001, Tuomi 2000), and that no government intervention is necessary. Others argue the digital divide exists, cutting across socioeconomic factors, and the gap needs to be addressed to prevent it from widening (e.g. Kastsinas & Moeck 2002, Huang & Russell 2003, Mack 2001, Solomon et al. 2003, Foster 2000), and others suggest with the persistence of a digital divide for some groups in society, there is a need to examine distinctions within the digitally underserved groups, using targeted strategies tailored to the needs of subpopulations, rather than attempting to categorize the digital gap as a single entity (Lorence & Park 2008).

In recent years, several studies have examined IT access and type of use between ethnic groups (Hoffman et al. 2001), income groups (Rice & Haythorntwaite 2006, Lorence & Park 2008), age groups (Loges & Jung 2001) and education groups (PEW Internet American Life Project 2006). Despite these efforts, few studies are yet to examine the extent to which these factors as well as city per capita income, the size of the labor force, and government officials’ preference of the Internet as a communication medium do influence their deployment of resources to broaden Internet access and participation for underserved groups. In the following sections, we draw on the literature on the debate over digital divide, theories of technological diffusion and technological determinism, developmental theory, and democratic theory in order to establish a theoretical foundation to explain how government officials’ communication preferences and socioeconomic factors could influence their deployment of resources to facilitate Internet access and online participation.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Communication Preference: The preferred means of providing and/or receiving information. This may include expression of thoughts and ideas. The means for providing and/or receiving information may include face-to-face communication, telephone conversation, regular post office mail, Internet email, electronic bulletin board, radio, newspaper, television, etc.

Technological Diffusion: A concept that suggests that the adoption of many successful innovations have commonly followed an’S’ (Sigmund) shaped pattern. According to this theoretical concept, new technologies have often experienced a slow rate of initial adoption, followed by a substantial surge that peaks when penetration levels reach saturation point and demand subsequently slows.

Social Stratification: The divisions within and across societies. These divisions create individual and structural levels of social exclusion and social inequality. The root cause of such stratification could be disparities in financial, educational, or cultural resources, as well as ethnicity.

Online Participation: The use of the Internet to facilitate active citizen involvement in the policy and democratic processes. This includes using government web sites to solicit citizens’ opinion on policies and administrative services, to allow citizens to provide online feedback to administrative agencies and the legislature, and to stimulate online public discussions on policy and the political process.

Internet Deliberative Features: Attributes that serve as democratic outreach by facilitating communication, interaction and discussions between citizens and government. These include online discussion forums and feedback forms.

Digital Divide: The disparity between individuals who have and do not have access to information technology. It is the perceived gap between those who have access to the latest information technologies and those who do not. More specifically, the digital divide is often measured by personal computer ownership and Internet access.

Internet: A global network connecting millions of computers. The Internet is decentralized by design and each computer (host) on the Internet is independent. The World Wide Web (WWW) is a technology that ‘sits on top’ of the Internet to allow for communication enabled by web browsers such as Internet Explorer, Netscape and Firefox. The Internet generally consists of the WWW, electronic mail (e-mail), file transfer protocol (FTP), Internet Relay Chat (IRC), and USENET.

Resource Deployment: The means provided to support a specific project or goal such as provision of Internet access and design of deliberative features for online citizen participation. Such means may include allocation of funds for the technological infrastructure, assignment of support personnel, access provision (e.g. electronic kiosks) and connectivity, Internet usage training, promotion of city web site, and availability of education materials on the Internet.

Technological Determinism: A concept based on the assumption that technologies shape societies more than vice versa. Various strands of this theoretical concept generally emphasize that technological development directly influences how far political organizations can provide online services and information, and indirectly produces greater incentives for political organizations to do so, as far as the general public is wired.

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