Pew: Open government is tied to higher levels of community satisfaction

The results from a new study from Pew Internet and Life Project found that when citizens believe their governments are sharing more information, they are more likely to feel satisfied with civic life. The study will offer some evidence for elected officials who run on open government platforms or who work for more transparency. Broadband users are more critical of their communities and local institutions.

The study, released by the Pew Research Center, Monitor Institute and Knight Foundation found that citizens who believe that their city hall is more transparency are more likely to have positive feelings about:

  • the overall quality of their community
  • the ability of their community, including media and neighbors, to provide them with information that matters;
  • the overall performance of their local government
  • the performance of civic and journalistic institutions, including public safety, libraries, and media outlets.

The Pew study also found that government transparency was associated with how empowered residents feel. Specifically, those who think government shares information well “are more likely to say that average citizens can have an impact on government.” That said, the authors of the report made sure to caution not to draw too broad a conclusion from these findings:

We did not establish causality here – for instance, that greater government transparency provides benefits to a host of civic organizations or that broadband-adoption initiatives will heighten citizens’ critical thinking about their community or that higher-quality journalism will encourage more people to turn out for town meetings. Yet these possibilities emerge in the answers citizens and their leaders gave.

The degree of open government in a given community isn’t just about how citizens feel about it, however, as transparency advocates have emphasized: it’s  about how well government is actually sharing information, versus how well citizens feel they are. One interesting finding from the survey was that with increased broadband use, citizens become more critical of their communities and institutions.

“This result suggests that those citizens with broadband expect – but don’t always find – information from their governments, schools and other local civic organizations there where they want it when they want it,” noted report author Tony Siesfeld, head of research for the Monitor Institute, in a prepared statement. “It may be that broadband is raising ‘the bar’ on information transparency.”

The Internet is playing a role in the new information ecosystem. According to the survey:

  • 32% of the residents of the towns surved now get local news from social networking sites like Facebook
  • 19% get local news from blogs
  • 12% get it on smartphones and mobile devices like smartphones
  • 7% get local news from Twitter.

“There have been vast changes in the local news and information landscape in recent years,” noted Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet Project and an author of a report on the findings, in a prepared statement.  “One of the key insights here is that citizens have new ways to assess the performance of city hall. They are paying attention to how transparent their government is. If they feel public agencies are forthcoming, they also feel better about other parts of town. There might be a real civic payoff if governments shared more. ”

There’s much more to dig through in the survey (both the OhMyGov.com and techPresident analyses are worth reading) but one findings is worth highlighting for local government leaders making policy decisions this year:

Each of the 3 communities surveyed (San Jose, CA, Macon, GA, and Philadelphia, PA) have what the report calls an “online portal” for government and civic information. Even so, only a little more than a third of their residents were fully aware of the local government website.. From the report:

Moreover, in the opinion surveys, we found that many who tried to use the internet to get local civic information could not always find what they were seeking. Only a quarter of these residents said that when they did searches for local civic information they always found what they were seeking. Yet even when they found what they were seeking, only 37% said the information presented to them was very clear and easy to understand.

There’s clearly some room for local governments to improve here. The survey results suggested what could be done: “one strong yearning residents expressed was for a central location for civic information that is maintained by the government. More than three-quarters of the respondents in these three communities (78%) said it was ‘very important’ that a government website be set up for this and another 17% said it was ‘somewhat important.’”

Throughout United States and elsewere in the world, there are more examples of technology-fueled open government, where citizensourcing is part of the set of tools officials deploy. If local governments keep using technology to deliver smarter government, there’s reason to be hopeful that new online hubs fueled by open government data will play an important role in the information needs of citizens.

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.
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  • http://gumption.typepad.com Joe McCarthy

    I don’t want to make too much of an analogy here, but 12 years ago, I led a project in which we designed and deployed MusicFX, a group recommender system for selecting music in a fitness center. Members filled out a profile of how much they liked or disliked 91 different genres of music, and when they badged in to the fitness center, we used the pool of preferences for those who had checked in to select music that was most likely to please (or least likely to displease) the people working out at any given time.

    The reason I mention this here is that people reported that having some influence over the music selection was was one of the things they liked most about the system. The code was not open source, and we did not reveal the individual preferences of users, but we did offer some measure of transparency by showing the aggregate group preferences for each genre of the members who had checked in. I suspect that there may have been a bit of a placebo effect here, in that we could have randomly selected genres – or allowed the staff to select them behind the scenes – and simply feeling that they had some influence may have given users a similar sense of enjoyment or satisfaction (we did not test this condition).

    I wonder if a similar placebo effect – where people feel they have [the potential for] more awareness and influence over governments that share more data – could be at work here.