How Do Municipalities of Different Sizes Use the Internet?

A recent survey found that small cities have the most diverse Internet usage, and the larger the municipality, the more likely it is to utilize social media.

by Roberto Gallardo, Ph.D., and William Hatcher, Ph.D. / March 3, 2015
For thousands of years people have been cataloging the wonders of the world. To meet future challenges, the city will have to be re-imagined into the next great wonder. Photo from Shutterstock
For thousands of years people have been cataloging the wonders of the world. To meet future challenges, the city will have to be re-imagined into the next great wonder. Photo from Shutterstock

The digital age is in full swing, impacting businesses, residents and government alike.

As the Internet of everything (IOE) takes hold and local governments discover what smart devices and big data can do to help streamline services, save money and better engage with their residents, two important questions come to mind: How are municipalities using the Internet today? Can current uses help predict which are more likely to embrace IOE?

The use of Internet by governments can take place in three different ways: government-to-citizen, government-to-business and government-to-government. Each of these relationships requires a different strategy and platform. 

For example, e-government services and social media often represent government-to-citizen, while email and reporting tools involve all three relationships. For these reasons, it's important to understand the scope or diversity of Internet use among municipalities, as well as the depth or reach.


Figure 1 shows the percent of valid responses by county type using the core-based typology of the Office of Management and Budget. Almost half of the municipalities that responded were in a county with a population between 10,000 and 49,999 people.

An online survey conducted in partnership with the National League of Cities -- emailed to city clerks in three waves during the fall of 2014 -- received 121 valid responses, and found that nearly 44 percent of these respondents reported having a fiber-optic Internet connection while nearly 20 percent weren't sure what type of connection they had; that small cities had the most diverse use of Internet; and the larger a municipality is, the more likely it is to utilize social media.

Do municipalities understand the different broadband technologies available and, more importantly, which broadband technology is being used? 

Almost one-fifth of survey respondents said they were unsure of their broadband connection type, while almost half reported having fiber-optics.

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Figure 2 shows the percent of responses by broadband type.

Though Internet uses can vary among municipalities, survey respondents listed the following primary reasons for having Internet connectivity (they were asked to check all that applied):
  • Email
  • Identify and contact vendors
  • Research grant information
  • Research rules and statutes
  • Purchase goods and services
  • File reports with state agencies
  • Provide accountability information to the public
  • Seek input from the public
  • General research
  • Update municipal website/social media
  • Community bulletin board
  • Newsletter
  • Calendar of events
  • Showcase community assets and quality of life
  • Emergency response information

Based on the responses, an Internet use score was calculated ranging from zero (no primary reason selected) to 15 (all reasons were selected). A higher score indicates a more diverse use of the Internet by the municipality. 


Figure 3 shows the scores overall and by county type.

Of those who responded, small cities had the most diverse use of Internet, followed by metropolitan. This was expected since these larger municipalities tend to be more “complex,” have the resources, and see the need to streamline services and engage with residents. 

On the other hand, rural municipalities had the least diverse Internet use because they either don’t have the staff to manage more Internet applications, or they simply don’t see a need for them. 

Regardless of county type where the respondents were located, neither is under-using the Internet since they all had a score greater than the median of 7.5.

Further analysis showed that these 15 uses could be grouped into three categories: business & reporting, research, and public information & engagement.

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Figure 4 shows the percentage of Internet uses by category and county type.

Not surprising was the fact that rural municipalities had a higher use of Internet for business & reporting compared to small city and metropolitan municipalities.

On the other hand, rural municipalities had the lowest percentage of Internet use for public information and civic engagement. Again, the perception may be a lack of need for these services due to their “less complex” community.

Virtually all municipalities surveyed reported having a website, which is great considering the digital age is in full swing.

When it comes to social media, however, the story changes.


Figure 5 shows the percent of municipalities by county type that reported having a Facebook page.

A relationship is clear: the larger the municipality, the more likely it will use social media. This relationship also exists regarding availability of online services.

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The results of this survey have made three things 

First, more education is needed for public officials and residents in general on what broadband is and the type of connections available. This basic knowledge can help with advocacy and broadband availability efforts.


Figure 6 shows the percent using additional social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, etc.

Second, a clear relationship exists between a municipality's size and the availability of online services for its residents and businesses, as well as its social media presence. The reasons for these are mainly two: being unable to afford an online services platform, and/or hiring additional staff to manage social media presence. 

More importantly, however, is a lack of perceived need for these services. But the need is clear -- certain age groups, specifically millennials, see these services as a quality of life issue -- not as a luxury or passing fad. And today, citizens expect to communicate with government, as they do with private businesses, using social media and other Internet-based applications.

Third, the relationship seen with online services, social media presence and municipal size may also, unfortunately, apply to IOE and big data strategies. Lack of resources and perceived need (or lack thereof) could be the main reasons, but because these are becoming quality of life components, municipalities -- regardless of size -- must make them a priority.

Responsive cities -- as defined and discussed in the book with the same title -- are benefiting from big data and IOE. Smaller municipalities also need to join this bandwagon as they transition to the digital age.
 

Dr. Roberto Gallardo is a faculty member of the Extension Center for Technology Outreach and oversees the Mississippi State University Extension Service Intelligent Community Institute. This institute helps rural communities transition to, plan for and prosper in the digital age.

Dr. William Hatcher is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches courses in the school’s Master of Public Administration program.

 

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