Pen Pal Politicians Reach Voters

Politicians are adding “pointing-and-clicking” to their usual shaking hands and kissing babies routine, as a Pew Internet Project finds that an overwhelming 88 percent of local elected officials use email and the Internet in the course of their official duties, with 90 percent using email in their official duties at least weekly and 61 percent using it daily.

These figures are good news to the 5 million Americans that expressed a need for greater political interactivity via email. In a study of 88,000 voters conducted by Penn Public Affairs, 62 percent wished to be contacted by major political organizations who shared their views and provided their email addresses.

“This reflects a view that many have long held. Many more folks would participate in the political process but they’re never asked. People just don’t know how to connect. It’s pretty clear that those organizations that reach their constituents via email can build a much stronger community. People are hungry to participate,” said Paul Welday, managing director of Penn Public Affairs.

Pew Internet’s survey of mayors and city council members of the National League of Cities demonstrates that politicians are embracing the Internet and incorporating email into their contact with constituents. Pew found that 61 percent of respondents were using email to communicate with citizens at least weekly, and 21 percent do so every day.

However, despite the growing popularity of email, local officials are still more likely to cite phone calls (64 percent), letters (35 percent) and meetings (29 percent), rather than email, as the most common means citizens use to communicate with them. Only 14 percent of respondents assign a significant amount of weight to email. More significant than email are meetings (55 percent), phone calls (49 percent) and letters (27 percent).

E-mail serves a solid purpose for many of the local elected officials. Almost three-quarters (73 percent) note that email with constituents helps them better understand public opinion; 56 percent of online officials say their use of email has improved their relations with community groups; and 54 percent of respondents say that their use of email has brought them into contact with citizens from whom they had not heard before.

Beyond email interactivity, Americans are beginning to embrace the e-government concept, as revealed by a February 2002 poll conducted by the Council for Excellence in Government.

The survey found that more than three-quarters (76 percent) of Internet users and over half of all (56 percent) Americans have visited a government Web site, and 64 percent expect e-government to have a positive effect on the way the government operates. Other findings include:

  • 78 percent believe that e-government will improve preparedness for national emergencies, and enhance homeland security by facilitating better coordination and data sharing.
  • Americans are putting a higher priority on investing tax dollars in making government services and information available over the Internet (37 percent vs. 30 percent in the previous year), and a large number (81 percent) expressed the desire that these investments be used to expand systems that help government protect public health and safety.
  • Citizens remain concerned about security and privacy, especially identity theft and hackers getting access to information in government systems (65 percent); yet a large number of Americans (57 percent) said they were willing to give up some privacy if it strengthens homeland security.

Also polled by the Council were more than 400 government leaders (federal, state, and local), and 78 percent believe that e-government is having a positive effect on how government operates, with most (62 percent) wanting to proceed quickly to expand e-government.

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