Building detail on Capitol Hill map it

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City Services

eDemocracy

Seattle's Democracy Portal

According to a study conducted for The Council for Excellence in Government in 20021, the public's biggest hope for e-government was for it to make government more accountable. When asked about the most important way that e-government could improve government accountability, the three most frequently cited ways were allowing citizens to communicate their opinions on major issues to officials quickly and easily; allowing citizens to tell government agencies about the information they need or problems they experience; and, giving the public more information about the government's policies and decisions.

Seattle is one of the most "wired" and technologically literate communities in the world. Our most recent statistics show that more than 75 percent of all residents have home Internet access, and more than 50 percent of those have broadband connections.2 Even more than half of our seniors have home Internet access. Seattle also has an active citizenry that is knowledgeable about and engaged in civic and community affairs. And our elected officials are committed to broadening citizen participation. These three ingredients are key ingredients for a successful e-democracy initiative.

To be a national leader in using technology to dramatically expand civic engagement and public discourse. This is the goal statement recommended by the Seattle Commission on Electronic Communications, a volunteer citizen group that worked with staff to create a new vision and roadmap to enhance our city government television channel and its website.3 We refer to this initiative as Seattle's Democracy Portal.

Our Democracy Portal is not about electronic voting; this is a function controlled by other levels of government. It is about creating an informed and active electorate, and about facilitating involvement in the decisions that affect their daily lives.

The City of Seattle has long been a leader in the use of web technology to provide information to citizens, and was among the first to provide on-line services. And like most cities in the US, we operated a government access television station; these stations are typically like local versions of C-SPAN, covering major meetings and producing some programs about city services. Both the web site and TV channel have been tools to promote transparency in government, one of the key elements in any successful e-democracy initiative. But this is only a first step. The decision-making process needs to be open, but it also needs to be comprehensible and easy to access.

Two years ago we began transforming the channel into a more independent programming source, using both TV and the web to make governmental decision-making more accessible to our residents.

www.seattlechannel.org is a government web site with a difference. As a companion to the City's main website, www.seattle.gov, The Seattle Channel website organizes information by issues and tries to help interested residents to understand and participate in decisions on those issues.

Like many such channels, it is a window on government. About 30 hours of weekly City Council meetings are broadcast and videostreamed live. There is an indexed archive of more than 1200 videos of meetings and other public affairs programs. These videos are indexed so it is not necessary to watch the entire meeting to hear about one topic under discussion. During many public hearings, official testimony is taken by e-mail as well as in person. Over 1000 people participated in the City's last budget process using e-mail, which is now the predominant method of communication with elected officials.

The Channel's website provides detailed information about the top issues and projects going on in the city. For a typical issue, the website will include:

  • Background on the issue or topic and the organizations that are involved;
  • Videos of relevant public meetings, hearings, forums and other programs;
  • Information on upcoming community meetings;
  • Recent updates as events occur or decisions are made;
  • Links to related information on the City and other websites, news releases, local new stories and reader comments.
The site includes a daily set of links to local media stories on civic issues, turning us into a one-stop site for a quick overview of what is in the news, and easy access to more in-depth information.

TV programming on the Seattle Channel has been expanded to create several weekly and monthly public affairs programs, produced and hosted by contract journalists. There is a revealing study conducted by the Alliance for Better Campaigns titled "All Politics is Local but you wouldn't know it by Watching Local TV".4 The study examined programming on 45 local television stations for the week of October 5 through October 11, 2003 and found there is a near black out of local public affairs. Of the 7,560 hours of programming analyzed, less than one half of one percent - 13 hours - were devoted to local public affairs shows. The Seattle Channel is trying to fill this void in local public affairs programming.

A recent innovation is a program that awards small grants to community-based organizations for civic involvement projects. Seattle has a Technology Matching Fund, which has supported technology literacy and access projects to address the digital divide since the mid-1990's. This year, the program funded several Electronic Democracy projects that use e-mail, the Internet or other e-tools to increase communication with government and solve community problems. Eligible projects had to 1) increase awareness of community issues, 2) increase community participation in problem solving, and 3) increase interaction with government. The ultimate success of our Democracy Portal needs to be measured in whether participation changes the outcomes of decisions and whether it has an effect on people's trust in government. The first we can see in individual decisions; the second will be a long term goal affected by national and international events as well as those we can control at the local level.

We have a little bit of evidence of success. A recent survey indicated that almost 70 percent of people with cable television5 have watched the City's TV channel, up from 58 percent in 1999. Web site page views have gone up from about 22,000 per month to 37,000 per month in the last year and a half. Civic participation has always been strong in Seattle, but we can see its growth through the use of e-mail. Certain issues, (most notably anything involving pets), draw very wide participation from people who don't necessarily get involved in civic affairs. Our weekly polls are not a scientific measure of public opinion, but are a useful measure of interest in the issue.

Seattle has some unique political and cultural characteristics that support our initiative. We are well known for clean and open government. City elected officials have always encouraged citizen participation - Seattle is infamous for its extensive and sometimes never ending public process. But only a limited number of people will spend endless hours at community meetings and public hearings, and our Mayor and City Council members want to hear from a wider variety of people. There is a particular concern to be inclusive of those who rarely participate: youth, non-native English speakers, and others who feel disenfranchised from the process or simply do not have the time to become educated and attend meetings.

It helps that our local elections are non-partisan, but all of our elected officials are aligned with the same political party. Nevertheless, while political differences are not great, there is competition for attention between elected officials. Staff have to be very careful to balance the coverage of the Mayor and City Council members. We have managed to do a reasonably good job at this, but it has not been without difficulties. There have been occasional challenges from individual council members and citizens about how a subject has been covered (or who has been covered).

There are many other challenges, not the least of which is resources. Our entire television annual budget would produce one hour of commercial TV. We were able to implement phase one of this project using some extra money that the City received from a cable television fee, but the City's current budget shortfall has delayed our ability to move forward with additional improvements. It continues to amaze us how many people watch the channel or visit the website as we have no marketing budget; the majority of viewers find programs on the channel by surfing, and on the website through links to seattle.gov, which is heavily used.

Another challenge is to figure out how to make the coverage of decision-making events more interactive. While we have some ability to reference material posted on the web during TV broadcasts, and to refer people on the web to videos, we need to do much more to enhance meeting coverage. We can provide better visuals, more context, and more opportunities for interactive discussions.

Rona Zevin, Director, Office of Electronic Communications, City of Seattle
Presented at the Oxford Internet Institute Symposium on Electronic Democracy
May, 2004

Complete Symposium Proceedings, May 2004 (.PDF)


1 e-Government to Connect, Protect, and Serve Us
2 For comparison, a recent Pew Internet research survey found 39% of home internet users had broadband connections nationwide.

Archive note: The above reports are no longer available online.

3. The full report can be found at www.seattle.gov/scec/
4 http://www.bettercampaigns.org/reports/display.php?ReportID=12 (NOTE: WEBSITE NO LONGER ONLINE)
5 Approximately 65 percent of Seattle households have cable TV

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