Spokane Reaches Out
Can local government BBSs and Web pages help increase participation in civic affairs? Spokane, Wash., City Councilman Chris Anderson believes so.
GT: What led Spokane to create a Web page?
Anderson: Two things. When I first ran for office, one of my promises was to make access to elected and appointed officials in local government, and to the information that resides in the offices of those officials, easier and less expensive for the people in our community to get to. [I wanted] a process that was much less cumbersome.
Also, one of my own personal goals and objectives for the 1995 calendar year was to bring some sort of interactive online access to not only City Hall, but to the people in the community that we represent. I went public at a number of our City Council meetings about my desire to make this available and, as you might expect, I was approached by a lot of the departments and a lot of potential vendors who wanted to set up these grandiose systems at a fairly substantial cost.
I had a couple of individuals contact me and suggest we sit down for coffee because they had some ideas. After a single dinner meeting that lasted about four to five hours, this whole idea to use a combination of a Web page and an actual interactive online forum through the bulletin board service had jelled. Literally, within three weeks of that meeting the thing was online. It was beyond incredible.
It was really a combination of my passion to expand access to local government, the people in our community and technical individuals who resided in our community and wanted to take up the challenge that brought the Web page into existence.
GT: It seems relatively unique to use both a bulletin board and a Web page. Why did you use this combination?
Anderson: One of the biggest complaints that we have locally -- and I suspect from my reading that it's true across the country -- is that people simply do not have the opportunity to communicate on a regular daily basis with their elected and appointed officials. And if they have questions that need answers, they either have to send mail or try to get through a sophisticated phone-mail system.
What we tried to do was use the bulletin board as a means to have ongoing daily dialogue with the community on issues of substance and concern to them. I committed to go into the system on a daily basis and respond to all of the posts that were made.
It's really opened up a whole new arena of communication that never existed before and touched a part of our community that, for whatever reason, is uncomfortable with coming down personally or is uncomfortable with writing letters or with talking on the telephone. They like that little bit of distance, but still need and want to be able to communicate with their elected officials. I really think we've touched a whole new segment of the community that we've never really communicated with before.
With available technology becoming more prolific and less expensive, we have more and more members of the community with computers in their homes, a very inexpensive way to get right into city hall and get direct responses from the officials.
GT: Why does the city also have a Web page?
Anderson: We saw the Web page as a better way of providing people with information that is more graphical in nature and not easily distributed over a bulletin board -- background information, pictures of the elected officials -- and as a way to publish documents like newsletters. People can go in, read them and retrieve them from the Web page. We've tried to focus on dialogue on the bulletin board.
People can literally download a virtual copy of a document that exists in City Hall without having to go down and work through the maze to request it. In Spokane, the long-standing policy is to charge 25 cents per copy, which we don't do on the Web site. We have expanded the Web page over the last few months to include direct links to the bulletin board so that if you're reading a report or a presentation that an individual council member has made available on the Web site, you can go right from the page over to the bulletin board and make comments then return to the Web site to continue perusing documents.
GT: What is unique about the Spokane system?
Anderson: This was developed, designed and implemented with a combination of public and private participation, but no tax dollars at all. That's probably one of the biggest stumbling blocks that all of us in government -- local and otherwise -- face today.
We have fewer and fewer resources hopefully to provide more and more services. We came up with a way in Spokane to implement a system that was fairly state-of-the-art, fairly sophisticated, well-managed and maintained on a daily basis, and is comparable to any commercially available and expensive site on the market at no cost to the taxpayers. The two individuals whose brainchild this really was are Matthew Wood and Eric Smith. They donated all of their time and efforts to the program design and ongoing daily maintenance and management of the system.
GT: You said earlier that this was another way for people to participate in civic life, and that some people like to keep an arms length away from public affairs, but still have input and information. Has tension developed between these newcomers on the network and grassroots activists who have been around for years, attending the meetings and being physically involved?
Anderson: There's been some. When this was first brought out, the ones who were in the trenches were somewhat reluctant to accept input from those people who suddenly came out of the woodwork through the mechanism that we set up for them. Over time, as we disseminated and distributed in paper form some of the input and ideas and observations that already took place on the online forum and bulletin board, these people in the trenches saw that the ideas were good, sound, made sense and were based upon good solid research -- and changed entirely. I would say that there was a 180-degree shift in the willingness to accept the input from this particular resource and, in fact, take part in it as well.
What I see is a lot of the people in the trenches expanding their input into the process because when they don't have time, they'll still sit at home at their computer and get involved even if it's midnight.
The one downside that we are struggling through, and I see this in other sites that I have participated in throughout the country, is that there are some individuals who, because of the impersonal nature of the medium, will tend to use it as a forum for personal attack, chastisement or accusations -- what we proverbially call a flame war. Fortunately, because of close management by the two individuals who kind of watch over the system out in the community, it really has been kept to a minimum and I see it even lessening as time goes on.
GT: Regarding increased use of online communication for civic affairs, which allows people to meet electronically instead of at the town hall meeting: What do you think this does to community? How will it affect civic affairs and the sense of community?
Anderson: I personally see it as a positive change. I realize there are some detractors who will say that we are forcing people into the darkness of their basements, so to speak, to carry on their daily lives. I tend to disagree. We have become a society that is so bound by commitments, family and otherwise, that time is truly a precious commodity, more so than it's ever been before. We will never do away completely with the town hall meetings, the regular City Council and County Commissioner meetings, which the public can certainly come down and attend.
I think this mechanism provides a new ability for the people throughout the community who might not otherwise have the chance to come down and express their views and be a part of the community. As long as we don't replace the other mechanisms that we have strictly with technology, we have actually expanded our community involvement and that's the fabric that makes up the community in general.
GT: You're talking about augmenting as opposed to replacing?
Anderson: Yes. There are some town hall meetings now where you can actually sit at your computer and have a video conference right from your terminal. As we expand that technological capability, I'm not so sure that even the individuals sitting at home in their basements taking part for whatever reason will not be just as much physically involved by virtue of the camera capability and the video graphic capability on the computer. That's available now, but will expand over the next five years, certainly.
GT: Regarding communication with constituents -- one group you are going to know by name, by face, and then another group, perhaps on the same issue, you will know only by e-mail or BBS. Can you compare and contrast the weight that each of these groups have?
Anderson: It is much easier to get to know people, their background, their philosophy and what their motivation might be when they bring suggestions forward to an elected body and are right there physically. Again, if you communicate with these people, even through the electronic media, I think you can get to know people an awful lot.
In terms of giving weight, I think the weight given needs to be the same once you have the same type of background information and understanding of the motivation behind the input you are receiving. It shouldn't make any difference if it comes across in printed form on the screen or if comes physically from the flesh and blood person sitting across your desk. As long as you know who that individual is, what their background is and what their motivation for the idea is, then I think it carries similar weight.
GT: What about the human factor? When people meet people in person as opposed to just over the telephone or other medium, they tend to get a little closer, to shmooze about this and that, or because they are at the same meetings, they may share some of the same inside jokes, for example. Someone not in that environment may not be privy to all this, and they may not develop the same relationship as someone who is known in the flesh.
Anderson: The human factor is something we definitely need to deal with. It's something not completely lacking, but is certainly weak in today's computer technology environment. I think that's changing.
Once again when we start talking about the video technology that is forthcoming, I think that the human factor will be brought into the communication process. It's certainly something we have to work more with today and deal with quite consciously. It's a tough issue, but it's a part of how we respond and use this embryonic and growing medium that is available to us. It will not be perfect, not for a long, long time and it's certainly not perfect today. That's why I said that in no way could it possibly replace what we would call our conventional means of interacting with people. There's no way I would say we should stop our public meetings, telephone conversations -- all of those things. We're simply not there. And it's unlikely that it will ever completely take place, but I think we'll take steps toward more of this. We'll see the people that we can interact with grow from 50 to 100 to maybe 50,000 or 100,000.
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