Wheeler’s cautionary note concerning technology is well-taken. I work in the transportation industry and am the public involvement technical lead for the office in which I work, which consists of approximately 35 people. I routinely work with PennDOT and the Pennsylvania Transportation Planning Partners (Metropolitan Planning Organizations and Rural Planning Organizations, of which there are 21 in the Commonwealth), many of which have staffs filled with many young professionals who have grown up with social media and e-communications and are raring to convert all public participation to digital communications. While I appreciate their desire to become paperless and support the initiatives with which they are moving forward in their agencies’ communications, I often have to remind them that not all populations have access to digital communications, due to income, discomfort, distrust (or in the case of my grandfather, stubbornness). Robertson (2010) notes that there is a need to provide services to all members of the public. While e-participation might bring some citizens into the process who might otherwise have been left out, it might also leave others behind.
As e-participation in the planning process becomes more and more frequent, there is a growing concern among some that minority and low-income populations might be left out of the discussions due to a lack of access to in the internet. Reddick and Norris (2013) define the purpose of e-participation as being to encourage citizens to be able to have an impact and actually make changes in government and its policies through active public involvement. They also note that the use of e-government by the public is correlated to income and the local governments in areas of higher income generally have more resources, implying that there is less use in areas with lower income because the government doesn’t have as many e-resources. However, based on my experience working with the public during the planning and project development processes, fewer members of the general public will have access to computers and the internet in lower income communities.
Reddick and Norris (2013) also found that the higher the percentage of population that was white, the greater support there was by local government officials for supporting e-participation. This may be due in part due to distrust by some minorities of the government. Many government officials, even in areas with high percentages of minorities, are white. Ethnicity is also sometimes correlated with income, making it even more crucial that these populations be provided with adequate access to communications during the planning process, particularly when transit planning is being undertaken.
As Evans and Yen (2007) have pointed out, older Americans are often feel uncomfortable with new technology, even if they have access to it, and are reluctant to try new things. They are not considered an Environmental Justice community under Executive Order 12898 (which only applies to low-income and minority populations), but they are a population that still needs to be actively accommodated throughout the public participation process. They may also not trust digital communications and be concerned that their transactions will be lost of that they will not receive what they need. Robertson has noted, (2010) in some surveys, a majority of respondents felt that there is a great deal of incorrect information and propaganda on the internet. He lists challenges that must be dealt with by governments using e-participation, three of which are education, accessibility, and citizen awareness and confidence.
Another observation I have made on interacting with the public through e-media: People get angry if there is no response to their comments. I have been peripherally involved in a project where there was a comment section. Members of the public had to actually register before they could make comments, which seems unnecessarily burdensome. The purpose was to collect demographic data, which often makes people uncomfortable. In addition, the project developers were not at all responsive to the comments, and when contacted by telephone or email, denied ever receiving some of the comments. E-participation systems need to be constantly monitored to ensure they are functioning properly and to provide timely responses.
*The original post was edited in order to remove direct quotations from the readings.
Evans, Donna and David C. Yen
2007 American E-Government Service Sectors and Applications. Section: Management of E-Services / Catgegory: E-Services and Service Delivery Systems, Encyclopedia of Digital Government.
Reddick, Christopher and Donald F. Norris
2013 “E-participation in local governments: An examination of political-managerial support and impacts.” Transforming Government: People, Policy and Process 7:4.
Robertson, Scott P.
2010 “Digital Government.” Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 44:1.
2011 “Technology and Planning: A Note of Caution.” Berkeley Planning Journal 15:85-89.