Political Science Assistant Professor Ben Epstein brought his research project on web-based government services to the Social Science Research Center this summer, phase two of an on-going project to chart the evolution of e-government.
His survey analysis of 83 small, medium and large U.S. cities in the first phase of the project identified 32 types of financial, informational and interactive e-government services available. San Francisco led the group with 28 services, followed closely by downstate Santa Monica with 24. Minneapolis, MN and Fort Collins, CO also ranked high, despite having fewer financial resources to draw on. The cities were randomly selected from the country’s 792 cities with populations of at least 50,000 (Chicago was not among them). They were analyzed for the number, type and level of e-government services they offered.
While the number of services and how long cities have been engaged in e-government vary greatly, “we’re seeing a stabilization over time,” he noted. An estimated 75–80% of the cities analyzed offer their citizens the option to pay their utility bills online, followed next by online parking ticket payment services. But when it comes to decisions on expanding their web-based services further—be it payment of taxes or interactive social media features like Facebook—governments weigh a wide range of considerations, from cost and staffing, to issues of security, transparency, confidentiality, control and administrative complications.
“The verdict on e-government service is still out, and far from universal,” Ben said. To get the story behind the numbers, he and two assistant professors at other universities interviewed city managers, communications directors or other decision-makers from six of the 83 survey cities: Santa Monica, CA, Scottsdale, AZ, Lakeville, MN, North Richland Hills, TX, St. Lucie, FL and Margate, FL. Working with Ben were Leticia Bode of Georgetown University, who shares Ben’s interest in political communications and media and has co-authored a journal article with him, and Jennifer Connolly of the University of Miami, whose knowledge of city government and administration added a new dimension to the project. “E-government was totally new for us,” said Ben. They used an inexpensive application called TapeACall Pro to record their 20–50 minute interviews on an iPhone and then emailed or texted the digital recordings to each other. Mike Constantino, a DPU journalism graduate student, used the SSRC’s transcription software to script the interviews for analysis.
The interviews exceeded expectations, Ben said. “We had an incredibly rich variety of qualitative data that we could use from only six interviews.” They revealed that “cities are thinking of e-government in a number of ways,” Ben said, and are talking about it in terms of citizen expectations. Next spring or summer, the project will turn its attention to citizens’ perceptions and experiences to find out if cities and citizens are thinking alike about e-government. “I think cities assume a lot,” Ben explained, including the extent of what citizens know. The ultimate goal of the project, he said, is “to get a more holistic view of what e-government is” and what it means today, both top down and bottom up. “It was a fun project and I’m glad that it will continue moving forward,” he added.
During his teaching leave this fall quarter, Ben is completing a book manuscript with the working title, “The Political Communications Cycle: The Process of Change from the Newspaper to the Internet,” that will offer a theory of the cyclical process of changes in political communications over time. It will include a chapter on e-government.