Sunday, October 06, 2002

E-Mail Slips to the Bottom of City Hall's In Box
MOST mayors and city council members routinely receive e-mail from constituents. While they say the messages help them to understand public opinion better, they still give more weight to opinions expressed in meetings, letters and telephone calls, according to a study released yesterday by the National League of Cities and the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Of 520 municipal officials surveyed nationwide, 90 percent said they used the Internet on the job, and nearly 80 percent said they had received e-mail from constituents or local groups about civic issues. About 25 percent reported that they heard from constituents by e-mail every day.

However, about half of the Internet-using officials surveyed said that opinions expressed through meetings and phone calls carried the most weight. More than a quarter said that letters carried the most weight. By contrast, only 14 percent said they gave serious weight to opinions expressed by e-mail.

"The communications that take more time and energy are the ones that are going to carry the most weight," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew project.

Mr. Genser, the councilman in Santa Monica, said: "I think the most effective thing is to come to the council meeting and speak. It shows more commitment."

E-mail, he said, rates more as a signature on a petition, especially if messages arrive as part of a lobbying campaign. The key for constituents, he said, is to produce a thoughtful message regardless of the delivery system.

Another study has also cast doubt on the effectiveness of e-mail for getting a message through to government. Results of a survey by researchers at Brown University, released two weeks ago, showed a poor response rate to e-mail by state government officials.

Researchers for the university's Taubman Center for Public Policy sent messages to human services departments in all 50 states. Only 55 percent of the e-mail messages were answered.