Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

The Internet, citizen involvement…and blogs

Posted by David Kassel on May 15, 2007

In the lead paper in a series of essays on citizen participation and governance in the March/April 2007 issue of Public Administration Review, one of the leading academic journals on government, R. Karl Rethemeyer puts forth a relatively pessimistic view of the role of the Internet in helping save representative democracy in America. The only problem is he doesn’t discuss blogs.

In “The Empires Strike Back: Is the Internet Corporatizing Rather than Democratizing Policy Process?” (which you need a subscription to PAR read), Rethemeyer argues that while the Internet has been heralded as a way to involve citizens more directly in representative democracy, it may actually only serve to strengthen the political dominance of special interest groups, lobbyists, and corporate organizations.

“In fact, there is much evidence that the Internet is increasingly a tool of the powerful, entrenched, and organized rather than the unorganized or reform minded,” argues Rethemeyer, who contends that representative democracy “may be on the critical list” due to “corporatized” politics.

Rethemeyer bolsters his argument with data from two case studies focusing on adult basic education and mental health “policy networks” in an unnamed state that he names “Newstatia.” Rethemeyer’s research appears thorough as far as it goes, but he makes his rather sweeping assertions based on his review of the use of e-mail, instant messaging, and listservs by these policy networks. But what about blogs? The paper says nothing about them.

The jury is certainly still out as to whether national, state, and local political blogsites have had a beneficial impact on representative democracy in their respective spheres.

Rethemeyer notes that the Internet makes it easier to mobilize groups or networks of people to affect elections, in particular. He cites Howard Dean’s successful use of the Internet to raise money during his 2004 presidential campaign. But Rethemeyer found that that use of the Internet did not result in any new members joining either of the two policy networks he studied nor did it create new relationships in terms of communication among the network members. In the case of the mental health network, the core group of Internet users consisted only of key insiders in the executive and legislative branches.

It would seem that we need further study that looks more broadly at the impact of the Internet on representative democracy and at the impact of blogs, in particular. Blogs may not save representative democracy or even be good for it, but they certainly do welcome new members.

Among the other papers in the PAR issue’s series on citizen participation and governance were:

“Citizen Involvement and Performance Management in Special-Purpose Governments.” Tanya Heikkila and Imberly Roussin Isett explore the impact of citizen involvement in non-traditional forms of government, such as special districts and quasi-public authorities that provide specialized services, such as water management, housing, and health care. These quasi-public agencies are often criticized as being less accountable and transparent than traditional governmental agencies.

“When Public Participation Leads to Trust.” XiaoHu Wang and Montgomery Van Wart find that citizen participation is an important factor in building public trust in government. But that’s still not likely to be enough unless government brings about good results.

“The Wisdom of Crowds: Learning from Administrators’ Predictions of Citizen Perceptions.” Theodore H. Poister and John Clayton Thomas note that while public agencies often use surveys to solicit feedback from citizens and targeted consumer groups, those surveys are frequently found to be of questionable value. They find, however, that if public administrators are first asked to predict how the citizens will respond to the surveys, the value of the surveys themselves tend to go up.

Getting One’s Way in Policy Debates: Influence Tactics Used in Group Decision-Making Settings.” Jason L. Jensen discusses the most effective tactics used by influential people in group decision-making settings. The best approach, he says, may be a combination of inspirational appeals and rational persuasion. It’s not quite clear how this article relates to citizen participation.

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