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Can IT unite Los Angeles?
DG researchers evaluate one of L.A.'s newest e-government programs
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Internet technology has always held out the promise of being a strong tool for democracy, for empowering common people to take a greater role in their own government. But what if most citizens simply are not ready for it - or even aware of it?

Digital Government researchers are trying to gauge the effectiveness of one e-government program that the City of Los Angeles established in hopes of uniting its many neighborhoods. The city established an "Early Notification System" (ENS) powered by e-mails and web sites to support and facilitate communication between City Hall and neighborhood councils.

But is Los Angeles ready for this new system? Is it reaching most citizens? Are those citizens even using it? And most importantly, Does ENS provide a model of electronic governance that can be emulated by other city governments?

Funded by the National Science Foundation's Digital Government program, a project at the Public Policy Institute of California is evaluating the development and effectiveness of ENS in improving the communication between government officials and residents.

Fulfilling the first step in a long-term plan to strengthen Los Angeles neighborhoods, the city's Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) is creating more than 100 neighborhood councils across the length and breadth of the vast, diverse city.

Created in the sweeping City Charter reform of 1999, neighborhood councils were designed to give ordinary people more information and influence regarding the municipal decisions that directly affect their neighborhood. Neighborhood councils are informed in advance of relevant agendas of the City Council through ENS. This system is intended to "make government more transparent and responsive and pry open City Hall's secretive and inaccessible policy making process," according to the DONE mission statement.

"The Internet will be the device which the city uses to alert councils to the changes that affect their neighborhood." Bill Loges, a USC communications professor said of this research. "This strikes me as a specific way for the city to identify a technology and mandate the people using that technology. That deserves attention of the research team."

In particular, Loges suggested that the purpose is to study an innovative application of the Internet that seeks to improve local governance and increase citizen participation in the policymaking process in Los Angeles.

"This project" said Christopher Weare, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California who is leading the project, "analyzes ENS from three perspectives: policy implementation, democratic participation, and technology and government." Most of the research is focused on online surveys and interviews with neighborhood council board members: The team developed an online questionnaire and posted it at to gather information from neighborhood council members who log in there.

The survey gathers data about council members' connections to their neighborhood, involvement in local politics, ENS usage, attitude towards the political process and personal information. Council members are asked whether they subscribe to receive the ENS e-mail notification of upcoming meetings and how frequently they visit the city hall's Web site.

The survey also collects information on how council members communicate with residents and city officials - whether by phone, email or other methods. Weare said that 20 to 30 council members had completed the survey in June but he expects that the number will increase to several thousand in the next three months.

The results of research to date on the progress of Phase I of ENS are not encouraging: Many neighborhood councils cannot benefit from ENS due to unawareness of this system or limited budget, according to early survey results. Even though DONE maintains an e-mail notification list of council agendas and web pages, most of the subscribers are insiders in the government instead of regular citizens, Loges said.

"It is disappointing that ENS fails to do what it is designed to do, Loges said. "But I hope that the research would help the government examine the current progress and develop the second and third phases to achieve its original goals in the charter."

At present, the research has not obtained enough data to make recommendations on ENS development. However, the researchers are optimistic about the coming year. Loges said that with more interviews and surveys, they would acquire concrete information and be able to make firmer statements about who is using ENS, how successful it would be and what improvements it needs.

Whether ENS will unite Los Angeles is up for more research, but Weare and Loges believe that public expectations for better communications are high and ENS has strengthened the ability of city department to distribute electronic documents.

"They (neighborhood councils) are building bridges in Los Angeles." Said Loges, "there is always a possible way to do it right."

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