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Tap the Internet to Build Public Participation

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The Internet and its user-friendly browsing technology, the World Wide Web, changed everyday life in the 1990s. Now, with the advent of “e-government,” public officials are investing serious resources in hopes of exploiting the Web’s ubiquity to automate interaction with citizens, cut costs, and improve service. Washington state residents, for example, can apply online for boating permits. “E-filing” of taxes is increasingly common, and even online voting is being cautiously introduced.

But as a communication channel for land-use planning, the Web has generally been the province of well-heeled locales, especially larger states, cities, and counties. This is starting to change, thanks in part to the rise of computer software and service companies that are focused on the needs of local governments — and are willing to invest in smaller, less lucrative markets. Now the Web is within the reach of most communities, especially those with realistic expectations and a few well-chosen strategies.

The “soft” benefits can be closer, richer relationships with constituents, and increased participation by people who would otherwise rarely make the trek to a public hearing. There are substantial cost savings in the printing and labor that can be avoided by making information available at little or no cost online. A well-organized online information system can help build institutional memories in organizations notorious for rapid turnover in both volunteers and staff. But more importantly, the new communication channels may help to further democratize a process that has often been dominated by highly motivated special-interest groups. …

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