This document was downloaded and archived from on May 29, 2001.


August 2000, Issue 9

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Citizen Online Participation in Government
by Martha A. Dorris
Assistant Deputy Associate Administrator
U.S. General Services Administration
Office of Intergovernmental Solutions

"We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." In many ways, technology is allowing the American people to participate in government in the very ways that our forefathers intended when they crafted our Constitution - a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

As the election season that decided our nation's leadership in the next millenium occurred, data indicates that the majority of Americans feel disconnected from government. According to a new poll sponsored by the Council for Excellence in Government and conducted by the survey research firms of Peter D. Hart and Robert Teeter, they believe that government is no longer "of, by and for the people." In 1997, Hart and Teeter also found that young Americans, ages 19 to 34, were more positive about government than older Americans. Their opinions were even more positive when reminded about government's role in national accomplishments, in science and technology and in solving problems and helping people.

Technology has created a window to reengage the American public. At a recent conference on 21st Governance sponsored by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), civic engagement was defined as the collaboration among individuals, government, and the private sector to influence and determine decisions of government. While many remain disengaged, technology is now being used as a leadership tool for reengagement. In Canada, civic engagement is a "two-way learning process that allows for seasoned reflection, encourages a willingness to listen to the values and perspectives of others, and supports the reframing of interests and perspectives in the context of a search for common ground and solutions acceptable to all citizens."

From its most simple form, technology allows the government to provide information online to citizens more than ever before. Environmental information is provided which allows citizens to select environmentally preferred places to live. In addition, examples exist throughout the world where information is available from both the government and industry on issues within the local communities. As we have recently witnessed, technology allows political candidates to educate citizens through Internet-based political sites. Some efforts have been initiated to allow voting electronically. Like-minded citizens are now able to find each other, organize themselves, and act on shared concerns. Examples also exist of grassroots organizations being able to place proposed legislation on voter ballots after collecting the number of required voter signatures via the Internet. This was a process that could cost up to $1 million US in the past. In Canada, public servants engage citizens in the development of policy and in fostering the creation of virtual communities.

Several examples exemplify the power of the Internet. In Athens, Georgia, fans of the popular rock-group REM were able to delay the destruction of train trestles by instituting a worldwide Internet campaign. Local politics in Athens were affected by e-mail from Sweden. To purchase the trestle, $25,000 needs to raised. Athens, Georgia is also facilitating donations via the Internet.

There are an estimated 110 million land mines in 64 nations across the world. These cause an estimated 800 deaths each month and many more serious injuries as a result of land mines. In the mid 1990's, most developed countries resisted a proposed treaty among nations to control the spread of these devices. Jody Williams, the leader at the time of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, used Internet to bring world attention to the issue and was an essential part of the Ottawa convention which led to a treaty which 100 nations signed. Jody Williams won the Nobel Peace prize in 1997 for her work in mobilizing attention which led to pressure on governments to address the problems caused by land mines. Internet allowed large numbers of people across the world to come together and cause governments to change their position on land mines.

The reengagement of citizens depends on government's ability to satisfy citizen expectations. To engage a citizen and not meet their expectations may result in future disconnection. Governments around the world are using many different methods for soliciting citizen feedback. GSA's Office of Intergovernmental Solutions recently published "Citizen Expectations for Electronic Government Services." This report surveys program managers in federal, international, state and local governments to obtain their experiences and lessons learned in obtaining citizen input for their electronic government initiatives. Nineteen case studies were submitted, three from international overnments, 11 from U.S. state and local governments, and five from the U.S. federal government.

Highlights from the new report provide some interesting findings. Citizens want choices for delivery of government services. Internet alone will not meet the expectations of citizens although they anticipate that it will be the foundation vehicle for service delivery. The survey results indicate that citizens hold government to a higher standard than the private sector in regard to privacy and information security safeguards. The digital divide is shrinking. It has less impact today than two years ago; and, it should decline in importance in two more years.

Citizens want the flexibility to deal with government on site (in person). They also want services to be delivered by mail, by telephone, by fax, CD-ROM, kiosk, interactive voice response systems, interactive TV and via the Internet. Collectively, the report suggests that governments that actively include citizens in the planning, development and implementation of electronic government initiatives will be the most successful in meeting citizen expectations. Copies of this report are available on-line at

Electronic civic engagement would not be complete without some discussion about electronic voting. Given the recent U.S. Presidential election, electronic voting will be a highlight in the upcoming administration. Arizona has some experience with electronic voting since it was used in their primary election. In addition, some Department of Defense employees voted electronically during the 2000 Presidential election. While many may believe that the confusion in Florida would have been eliminated if voting was conducted electronically, there is a host of issues that have need to be addressed to vote electronically via the Internet. However, Internet-voting could bring a degree of reliability and quick tabulation that is needed. Based on the Hart Teeter poll of citizens in the U.S. prior to the election, they are still very concerned about security and privacy as an issue with electronic voting. In Germany, however, voting is one of the top three government functions that people like to see performed online. Based on the citizens input, in June 2000, the German Land Brandenburg conducted its first election using electronic signatures entirely over the Internet.

We are just now beginning to see how technology can transform the government and governance. As technology advances, and citizens become more comfortable with and accessible to the Internet, and when concerns about privacy and security are alleviated, citizen participation and engagement with government will also be transformed.

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