Virtual Neighbourhoods, Virtual Nations
Local Councils Making Communities

NET 24 - Case Study - Jo Byron
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With regard to Information Communication Technologies (ICT), "people can use such systems in order to make connections between each other and between themselves and information" (Green and Harvey, 1999). This is so true and we will continue to use them, especially in the burgeoning area of e-government. However, my findings from this case-study make me feel that local council websites are vastly under-promoted. As a result of my research and largely for

my own interest, rather than a formal survey, I sent an email to 20 people around the world, asking them how often they accessed their own local council site. Only 3 of them went to their local authority site regularly and 12 of them had never accessed their council site at all. I would recommend that local councils promote their site more ardently through a non-online medium, perhaps via local newspapers or regional TV.

I found that the level of interactivity on most sites was weak, people need to be able to exchange information and that means giving/recieving data. More local councils should have forums on their sites to allow an online community to grow. Interestingly enough, there are rarely political forums on a local council site. It seems that political forums are kept more as "community of interest" type sites.

The web is not just a one-way vehicle, the Internet provides a two-way channel - yet no local authority was making use of this feature. Authorities should be using the web to gain valuable feedback and encourage constituency involvement with the council. Plenty of sites asked for feedback, but I didn't come across any which had a dedicated "space" giving results of community polls or opinions.

There also seems to be a lack of interaction from community leaders on local council sites. If the enthusiasm starts at the "top" and these people are active online, that enthusiasm will often spread throughout the community.

The reason some of the above items have not manifested themselves yet is because the back office administration at the council offices just is not in place to support this kind of interactivity. Funding & staff with the correct skill sets are essential for this to happen. As recognition of the power of the Internet grows, hopefully it will lead to "better administration transparency and efficiency and also to a better citizen's access to information, discussion areas and public services" (Romania, 2004).

Inclusive technology is around, but is not the norm. It would be nice to see local councils setting a precedent with accessibility techniques such as talking web pages, mouse free navigation, and relevant graphic images to complement text.

Finally, local councils should remember that not everyone has a computer at home. There is no reason, however, why should these people be excluded from the online community, after all, "technology is a social construction - the outcome of social and political choice" (Beamish, 1995). If local councils provided more
public places for internet access, then people without home computers could combine the experience of
their online community with their public f2f community.