March, 2011Surveys in several communities have found that the people who believe their local government does a good job sharing information are more likely than others to feel satisfied with civic life.
Those who believe city hall is forthcoming are more likely than others to feel good about: the overall quality of their community; the ability of the entire information environment of their community to give them the information that matters; the overall performance of their local government; and the performance of all manner of civic and journalistic institutions ranging from the fire department to the libraries to the local newspaper and TV stations. In addition, government transparency is associated with residents’ personal feelings of empowerment: Those who think their government shares information well are more likely to say that average citizens can have an impact on government.
Those are some of the key findings of surveys in San Jose, Philadelphia, and Macon, Ga. by the Monitor Institute in association with the Pew Research Center’s Internet & America Life Project, with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The surveys were conducted last November to assess how well local media and information systems were serving citizens and the results will be reported today at a major conference hosted by Knight Foundation.
Overall, residents of these communities feel that the local news media, despite the financial woes they have experienced, are doing a good job in serving their communities. Moreover, many say they are getting more local information now than they did five years ago.
The rise of the internet and social media is part of that story. Some 32% of the residents of these towns now get local news from social networking sites like Facebook; 19% get such news from blogs; 12% get it on mobile devices like smart-phones; and 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. “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.”
One of the real surprises in the surveys was that those who have broadband connections at home are more likely to be critical of elements of the local information ecosystem. In some places, home broadband users are less happy with city hall, less happy with the performance of local schools, and less confident about local information sources to provide them key information like where to find jobs and where to get emergency help.
“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. “It may be that broadband is raising ‘the bar’ on information transparency.”
The surveys were part of a broader effort to examine how local information flows in communities. Knight Foundation funded these studies to follow up on the insights of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, a joint project with the Aspen Institute. The commission argued in 2009 that democratic communities depend on strong local information systems. It specifically cited eight key indicators that characterize a healthy information system, ranging from government openness to vibrant libraries, universal broadband access and strong local journalism. This current research was designed to explore how those indicators worked.
The surveys and other research tools showed there is considerable variance among communities when it comes to the information sources on which people rely, to their feelings about the quality of information generated by local organizations, to the own views about their ability to help make their towns better. San Jose residents stood out as being more satisfied with several aspects of their communities, at least partly because they felt the media and information ecology was delivering the information they needed.
“We come away from this work with a strong sense that civic culture is deeply connected to the quality of a community’s information system,” said Mayur Patel, Knight Foundation’s director of strategic assessment. “In general, community members supported the Commission’s findings: They told us that a healthy information system was one in which they could easily find and process the information they wanted and could contribute their own voices in the system. Government transparency is critical, and so is citizen opportunity to exchange information.”