Civic Networks? Why Should Governments Bother with Them?

Paul Baker
Institute of Public Policy
George Mason University, USA


As the Internet continues to grow and develop, it has "morphed," or changed, through a variety of shapes, capacities, and forms. Although it is generally thought of in terms of a "global" information infrastructure, paradoxically, its networked structure allows for a local component and for the provision of local information content. Called variously civic networks (CNs), community networks, and public information utilities, these nodes possess the same characteristics that drive the growth of the Internet--rapid access to and dissemination of information. These networks are also appealing in that they allow information to be distributed in modes alternative to the traditional broadcast (or one-to-many) model.

This ease of access, coupled with the reduced transaction cost of publishing information, facilitates increased communication among participants. Certain economic theories suggest that this should reduce the cost of starting and maintaining organizations. In principle this should lead to more interactions among civic or community-minded groups and ultimately to an increased community awareness. Likewise, this same opportunity exists for government, in that use of this communication channel can more readily and cost-effectively distribute information. Additionally, it allows for the opportunity of new channels for citizen participation and therefore provides a way for government to address complaints that it "doesn't listen." Various components of electronic communication, such as e-mail, provide citizens with a capacity to query and to influence local governmental officials. Further, the relatively immediate nature of e-mail demands a more rapid response than do other forms of communications.

This provides local government with both opportunities and threats--opportunities in that there are entirely new venues and forms of interaction with those governed; threats in that much of what constitutes power at a local level is based on control (control of information, control of regulation, and control of decision making). However, the technology-intensive aspect of CNs suggests that this enhanced connectivity is not without additional social cost--cost related to access.

Although these CNs offer unparalleled ability to deliver services to citizens, without provision for public access to information terminals, they also raise a specter of a society divided into information cognoscenti and information "have-nots," with the latter at risk of being further left behind in the information society. This paper examines from a policy standpoint some of the costs and benefits, or threats and opportunities, that CNs present to local government.