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US and UK research explores how the public perceives community information services

March 3, 2011

I spent some time last night sifting through the US-based ‘How the Public Perceives Community Information Systems‘ report  – for those short of time here’s a link to a good summary from Pew Research Center.

The conclusion of the piece is that public trust in government is strongly tied with their engagement and involvement in their communities.

The study shows that when local government is transparent, accountable and readily accessible the study shows that communities are more likely to be satisfied with public services – and therefore improving opinions of the councils work.

  • Those who think local government does well in sharing information are also more likely to be satisfied with other parts of civic life. Those who believe city hall is forthcoming are more likely than others to feel good about: the overall quality of their community, the ability of the entire information environment of their community to give them the information that matters, the overall performance of their local government and the performance of all manner of civic and journalistic institutions.
  • Broadband users are sometimes less satisfied than others with community life. That raises the possibility that upgrades in a local information system might produce more critical, activist citizens.
  • Social media like Facebook and Twitter are emerging as key parts of the civic landscape and mobile connectivity is beginning to affect people’s interactions with civic life. Some 32% of the internet users in the three communities combined get local news from a social networking site – 19% get such news from blogs and 7% get such news from Twitter. And 32% post updates and local news on social networking sites.
  • If citizens feel empowered, communities get benefits in both directions. Those who believe they can impact their community are more likely to be engaged in civic activities and are more likely to be satisfied with their towns.

Here in the UK similar ideas are being registered too. Last year, Networked Neighbourhoods published some excellent research into the impact (hyper)local websites were having on communities – again for the time deprived here’s a link to a four-page summary.

Of people who use these sites, the study found only 13% were involved in ‘formal political’ activity, 59% felt able to influence decision-making processes and 42% felt their attitudes towards local councillors had improved. Importantly, nearly all councils identified such sites as being somewhat or highly ‘constructive or useful’.

The research by Pew and Networked Neighbourhoods concentrate on relatively narrow geographical areas – Pew focused on the cities of Macon, Philadelphia and San Jose, Networked Neighbourhoods on London. Yet despite this, the findings are significant and worth recognising as they help solidify perceptions that web technologies can help councils engage with and deliver to local communities.

As I’ve previously blogged on transparency and open government, now we have some evidence to back up our beliefs, the next challenge is to find ways for these different spheres of democratic engagement to work together to produce a vibrant civic sphere and to think through how we can extend the collaborative, ‘with‘ logic of the web into all political interactions on and off line.

*UPDATE: An interesting experiment in council-led information delivery is taking place in Walsall today (3rd March)- following the footsteps of Greater Manchester Police, council workers are to tweet, facebook and flickr every day tasks*

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