Masthead CMC Magazine October 1, 1995 / Page 7


Upgrade Our Local Governments

by Christian Sandvig (

DAVIS, CALIFORNIA-- Weekly, worried pundits and activists contemplate the future and implications of children on the Internet, schools on the Internet, minorities on the Internet, even corporate America on the Internet. Few, however, contemplate government on the Internet. Not government of the Internet, a topic that has received far too much attention-but simply government on the Internet and especially the portions of our government that arguably affect us the most. The guts of the country: school board elections and judicial districts, city council members, county supervisors-the place you live. The people that filter your water, pave your roads, police your streets, and put out your fires. The postmaster, planning committee, elections office, and parks and recreation department.

In a well-functioning town, the underpinning of the true community is the local government. The much-heralded development of the virtual community will remain incomplete until local government is well-represented: until the physical community can mesh with the electronic. A simple concept, it would seem. Who would argue that better access to government is a bad idea? As the team leader of a local government outreach project on the Davis Community Network, I tell you it is an idea whose time will be long in coming, unless changes are made in the approach of local, municipal governments to their communities--and in the way we think about what role computer-mediated communication should play in this relationship.

An Inherently Different Medium

It is easy for us to slip into thinking about computer-mediated communication as just a new flavor of the same things we are already used to, rather than an entirely new vision-an entirely new medium. At first contact, the fundamentals are hard to see:

Where I work at the City of Davis Police Department, if someone sends a letter asking about crime in a specific area of the city, I would respond formally: thanking the person for the inquiry and enclosing our latest public crime statistics. If that same person called me on the phone with the same question, I would respond informally: I would talk to them, read them some statistics, and speculate, if asked. If they said "Would you live there?" I would tell them. If they said "Do you think I would be safe there?" I would tell them. How do I respond if they e-mail me the question? Does it count as a letter or a phone call? Neither.

Overcoming the differences of a different medium is not a unique obstacle to government, but the same problems inherent with a jump from one kind of communication to another in any organization are exacerbated in government because of its resistance to change. We, the community, must demand that municipal government move into this medium, and we must demand that computer mediated communication on the Internet be something new. The typical municipal World Wide Web site must not consist of a collection of scanned brochures (already available in print)-because this is not a true realization of the medium. Municipal government participation must not be confined to stale, static information clouded by the buzzword "interactive." As Phil Agre explains in this speech excerpt from The Network Observer:

...conceptualize computing as a collective activity-as something that communities and groups and networks of people do, not just individuals. certain visions of the information superhighway...we can shop at home, work at home, vote at home, and just generally do everything at home. This kind of technologically enabled agoraphobia is the antithesis of community and democracy, particularly when the architecture being envisioned is a top-down system in which "interactivity" is conceived wholly as button-pushing to purchase commodities, gamble, or participate in plebiscites.
In an attempt to achieve on-line communication with the public, government agencies quickly fall into the trap of doing the same things, slightly differently. Examples include every city with a "we are here" presence on the Internet, and no more. Perhaps there is even a wealth of information culled from brochures and guidebooks, but this is not government on the Internet, because there is no junction of the physical community and the electronic. To promote a Neighborhood Watch program, don't put your brochures about the program on-line (why to join, how to join, and so forth), put a searchable database on-line where the user can check to find the nearest Neighborhood Watch group, then tell how to join. If there are no Neighborhood Watch groups nearby, then tell how to start one. The Internet is not just a new place to get the same thing.

Boundary and Distance

Recognition of the Internet as a distinct medium is not enough; to progress we must also realize the profound implications of the differences. Currently, there is a serious incompatibility with government and the Internet, and that incompatibility is distance and boundary. Perhaps best explained by Mitroff and Bennis in The Unreality Industry, the term "Boundary Warping" refers to the tendency in our modern age for boundaries between things to become more and more diffuse and indistinct. This concept is perfectly applied to the Internet, where it seems literally everything is connected to everything else, and it is often very difficult distinguish boundaries-where any one "place" ends and another begins. It may be that boundary and distance are essential to government, or it may seem that way to our government now. This must change.

By boundary, I refer to delineations and boundaries generally speaking. Government is rife with delineations, many of which baffle an untutored member of the public. The Internet, on the other hand, tends toward chaos, not compartments. When I became the first person with e-mail at my own organization, I had a terrible time explaining that I wasn't the one who could answer every question. "I'm sorry," I told someone, "I only give out public information-if you want to get your permit processed you'll have to bring it downtown." Of course, the inevitable response is: "Why?" Why, indeed? If you can do one thing through this medium, why can't you do all things? Maybe you can. This is boundary warping.

At times, government depends upon the guise of officialdom as a boundary. My favorite cartoon from The New Yorker shows two dogs talking in a room, on the desk is a computer. One dog says to the other dog, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." So true, and on the Internet, nobody knows you're the government. The boundary of officialdom is stripped away. While an agency's tie to actual, physical resources and legal powers may give it some absolute authority, anyone can claim to be just about anything on the Internet, and official letterhead, seals, cars with door decals, and uniforms don't exist. When I first started responding to local discussions about crime on USENET newsgroups, I quickly discovered that the Internet's playing field is very level. My user name at the time, "Davis Police," prompted vicious verbal attacks on police generally, belligerence, and questions about crime best classified as beyond the bizarre. Behavior that would not occur on the telephone, or in a letter, (or especially face to face, with me in uniform). I was stripped of my boundaries, my protections.

Government agencies may not lose actual power on the Internet, and I am not suggesting that masses of government-impersonators will appear as wired government appears, but it is the perception of power and officialdom that is crucial. Government may have a serious incompatibility with the Internet because the humbling, frightening experience that it is to be stripped of boundary is a major obstacle for those in government. I gradually became a known entity on the Internet by slowly building relationships and a reputation, but the initial loss of the traditional boundary could be insurmountable to many in government. Are you speaking as yourself, or as an agent of your employer when you are on the Internet? In cyberspace, where does work end and pleasure begin? The longer you experience the medium, the more the boundaries blur.

Distance refers to the immense freedom of access the Internet can provide to its users. While in theory government is accessible to everyone, when you reduce the difficulty in access (remove the walk to city hall, or the cost of a stamp) you increase the number of people that access. Government agencies unknowingly rely on distance and the relative inefficiencies of some media (e.g., the postal service) to control workload. The greater the ease with which the public can interact with government, the more they will. Six months after establishing a general e-mail address for the Police Department, I receive about eight e-mailed questions each working day that I really believe people would not have asked over a different medium. Little, nagging questions that never seemed important enough to really look into can suddenly be asked because asking is so easy. Questions that seem strange or unusual can now be asked without any face to face contact that might be embarrassing.

The phrase "Activism is the killer application of the Internet" is seen regularly on USENET (Odasz). Ease in access changes the business of government. It suddenly becomes much easier to lobby your government when it is connected (and in exchange, it is easier for the government to get in touch with you). Community activism changes from the dedicated few to the clamoring many. This loss of distance inherent to the medium is just as frightening as the loss of boundary. Our idea of government must change to include less distance and fewer boundaries.

The Next Step

There is a great movement for businesses to get wired, and the impetus is competition-a sufficient reason to break down these barriers of understanding and force change. Government may feel the pressure of citizen demand increases as more and more people get on-line, but this is no parallel to competition for the change-resistant, frequently cash-strapped institutions that are our local governments. We need to demand municipal government access, to force the change that is so difficult, and to offer our help and encouragement. We need to push our institutions to realize boundary and distance will change, and that we want them to.

When we become closer to government, when we achieve convergence of the physical and electronic community, we will find that the role of government has changed along with us. As the Civic Practices Network proclaims in its Call for a New Citizenship, "Political life and civic culture in America are in a state of crisis, and this crisis is unlikely to be resolved in a constructive fashion unless we begin to reinvigorate citizenship as active and collaborative public problem solving by citizens themselves." How can we produce this collaborative public problem solving? We have the tools to do it through the Internet. We have the willpower to produce it in the citizenry. We stand at a place in history where we can just barely discern the vast potential in the new tools we have created, and we must begin the long climb to realize that potential. We need to move local government over any hurdles that appear, to a new relationship with the people; to a different relationship with the people; to a better relationship with the people. [CMC TOC]


Christian Sandvig is the team leader of the City of Davis Police Department Internet Outreach Project, and a student of Rhetoric and Communication at the University of California at Davis.

Copyright © 1995 by Christian Sandvig. All Rights Reserved.

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