Local Governments Embrace E-Mail

The past three years provide powerful evidence of how the Internet and e-mail have entered national and international political life. There has been strong growth in the number of online Americans who use government Web sites.

A survey conducted in July by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 62 percent of U.S. Internet users - some 70 million people - have used government agency Web sites. That's a substantial increase from the 42 million users reported by a similar survey conducted in March 2000. On a typical day in July, more than 9 million people went to the Web for information and services from public agencies, according to the project.

Although the Internet allows people to access Web sites and activists to communicate effectively with each other, it has not proven to be as important for communicating with some kinds of policy-makers. The ease with which those promoting a cause can solicit thousands, or even tens of thousands, of e-mails to be sent to any number of politicians has sparked a backlash against e-mail campaigns on Capitol Hill. The Congress Online Project reported that the House of Representatives received 85.5 million e-mail messages in 2001 - an average of almost 540 messages per day to each office.

Local government officials make considerable use of the online tools their cities provide them, the survey found. Eighty-eight percent of respondents said they use the Internet and/or e-mail in the course of their official duties. Three-fourths of these online officials use the Internet in the course of their official duties at least once a week - 34 percent do so every day. E-mail is even more popular, with 90 percent of officials using it at least weekly, and 61 percent using it daily.

Eighty-two percent of online local officials use e-mail to communicate with citizens. Sixty percent do so at least weekly, and 21 percent do so every day. Those in larger cities tend to e-mail citizens more frequently. Almost half (49 percent) of online officials in cities with populations over 150,000 e-mail citizens daily, while only 9 percent of those in cities with populations under 20,000 do so. In their communications with constituents, 21 percent have used e-mail to solicit input on a community issue, and 13 percent have sought to float a new idea to residents.

But in many areas, e-mail still is not considered a conduit for "serious" civic communications, according to the report. "Perhaps e-mail is too easy to use and is discounted by some officials as an inappropriate and ineffective tool for communicating with citizens," the organization said. "While it is very useful for information gathering and sharing, it has yet to demonstrate a robust effect in consensus building and decision-making."

A full copy of the report - "Digital Town Hall: How Local Officials Use the Internet and the Civic Benefits They Cite from Dealing with Constituents Online" - is available online from The Pew Internet & American Life Project at .

Arkansas Rolls Out JailNet

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - JailNet, a secure database containing criminal justice information on anyone booked into an Arkansas jail, is up and running in 65 counties.

"We started laying the groundwork around the beginning of last year," said Kathy Gattin, JailNet manager for the Arkansas Crime Information Center. "We didn't reach completion of the design phase until the fall, and started, in December, the first phase of JailNet - which was to automate the county holding facilities that had no automation in place."

Once the automation measures were finished, JailNet began collecting statewide data, she said. JailNet is built on the same middleware platform used by the state's automated victim notification service, called VINE, which informs crime victims of the custody status of offenders and automatically notifies them when changes such