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
as releases or transfers occur.
JailNet will give all 75 county jails in Arkansas a way to access inmate information such as arrest records, state or federal NCIC warrants, protective-order and sex-offender data, and probation and parole records. The system checks these information sources when a suspect is booked into the jail. If a match is found, JailNet alerts staff members through the jail's booking system.
Jailers will also be able to maintain and retrieve incident reports on unruly inmates. And law enforcement officers will use JailNet to search all Arkansas jails to determine if a criminal suspect is in custody.
Once JailNet's first phase was complete, Arkansas turned its attention to another problem, Gattin said.
"From January to the end of March, it was vendor interfaces," she said. "We were contacting vendors, sending out design specs. There are more than 20 different booking system types in the state. What we wanted to do was give them our data layout and have them adapt their booking systems to allow us to pull this data for JailNet."
JailNet is funded by a $400,000 federal appropriation, and all county jails should be connected to the system by the fall.
"Each county jail will have the ability to input information into JailNet," she said, noting that the system will contain information from both county facilities and city police department booking facilities. "There are actually two parts to JailNet; input and Web access. It's a restricted, secure Web site, and all this data is going into a centralized database."
Librarians 1, Police 0
SEATTLE - Library officials won a legal battle with the Kent Police Department in August over the actions of police investigators.
Police, acting on a tip that a library patron was using library PCs to download child pornography, seized two PCs from the library to examine the computers and their files.
The King County Library system sued the police department to halt the investigation, arguing that officers illegally seized the PCs without a search warrant. The officials also contended that any information gleaned from searching the PCs would not have been admissible in court.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, said King County librarians were protecting the legal process.
"They prevented the evidence from being thrown out of court because it was acquired illegally," she said. "The rules are there for a reason. Librarians who insist on the search warrant are actually respecting a long-established rule of law concerning the collection of evidence."
The incident wasn't the first time that library and law enforcement officials have wrangled over the issue, according to Caldwell-Stone.
"It's happened in the past, and I have no reason to think it's going to stop," she said. "How law enforcement deals with it is something that law enforcement agencies need to learn about. Just because libraries are public institutions doesn't mean that the records they keep aren't subject to the Fourth Amendment and the usual rules for discovery."
Florida Privatizes Personnel Administration
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida has signed a seven-year contract with Convergys, a Cincinnati-based information-management firm that will take over some of the state's personnel administration chores.
The deal, signed in August, saves Florida between $65 million and $90 million by eliminating the need to replace the state's Cooperative Employment Personnel System (COPES) and by outsourcing some aspects of personnel administration, according to Florida's Department of Management Systems (DMS).
DMS Secretary Cynthia Henderson said COPES no longer meets Florida's needs and must be replaced. Under the state's human resource outsourcing contract, Convergys will implement a system to manage certain state personnel services.
State employees will use a self-service Web portal to manage changes of address,
dependents, emergency contacts, marital status and other personal information. Employees also will use the portal to enroll in benefit programs and access benefit information.
COPES will be gradually phased out, said Kathleen Anders, director of communications for DMS, but the department will continue to manage personnel services that are policy driven. "This is an outsourcing project, not a privatization project," Anders said. "We do keep control, and we'll be watching the benchmarks."
The deal has its critics, including the Florida chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Alma Gonzalez, special counsel to the president of the Florida AFSCME, said the organization has several concerns.
"There's a lot of information that's being transferred back and forth between our public entity to this private entity, and many, many of the personnel records that are going to be handled are even exempt from the public-records law," she said. "In this day and time of identity fraud, the question of the security of the records is a serious matter."
The AFSCME also is wary of the potential impact on state employees.
"As a labor representative, we're very concerned that there will be lots of layoffs behind this privatization, which seems to be unnecessary," she said.
Anders said the arrangement ultimately will benefit employees, and that Florida will assist state workers who lose their jobs due to the outsourcing project.
"There are some people in the personnel department who will be displaced," she said. "Convergys is going to open a site in Tallahassee, and they will be interviewing state employees for 75 positions in that office. Our goal is to place everybody who wants to be placed, either in state government or working with Convergys."