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JILT 2002 (3) - Peter Chen

 

 

 

 


Contents

 

 

Abstract

1.

Introduction

2.

Findings

 

2.1

World Wide Web

2.2

Use of Electronic Mail

2.3

Other Online Services

Importance of the Internet in Work Life

Online Voting Preferences

3.

Discussion

4.

Conclusion

 

 

Appendix

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Virtual Representation: Australian Elected Representatives and the Impact of the Internet

Peter Chen[1]
Centre for Public Policy
University of Melbourne
Australia
pche@unimelb.edu.au

Abstract

This paper examines the impact of the Internet, specifically the World Wide Web and electronic mail on Australian elected representatives in three key areas: (1) representatives' use of Internet technology as part of the work lives: to what extent has the technology been adopted by these public functionaries? (2) online consultation: have representatives adapted Internet technologies for the purpose of democratic communication with their constituents and stakeholders? And (3) online voting: do representatives see value in 'virtualising' traditional voting practices? Based on a survey issued to every elected representative in Australia, data is presented to illustrate the current use, salience, and potential value of these activities for Australia's political leaders. The findings show, first, that generalised use of online services by elected representatives is substantially higher than that of the Australian population average, and interest in the use of online services, online consultation, and online voting is also quite high. Second, the application of online consultation remains limited for some groups of representatives. Using Rogers's theory of the diffusion of innovation, the difficulty and magnitude of change required to implement some forms of online democratic practices is explained, through use of a number of adoption curves.

Keywords:, Democracy, Representative Government, Politicians, Internet, New Media, Survey Research, Local Government, Federalism, ATSIC, eDemocracy, Innovation, Computers, Networking, Governance, Online Voting.


This is a Research Report published on 6 December 2002.

Citation:Chen P, 'Virtual Representation: Australian Elected Representatives and the Impact of the Internet', The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT)2002 (3)<http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/02-3/chen.html>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/2002_3/chen/>.


1. Introduction

The initial introduction of all modern media forms have encouraged speculation as to their potential democratic benefits (Williams, 1974, pp.50-55), drawing in both utopian and dystopian views as to their impacts on the political landscape of the times (Roslaniec, 1998). With the latest 'revolution' in media technology, the political impacts of the Internet is only now beginning to be felt across a range of policy domains and practices: from the forumulation of policy ideas and law, the competition for power, and the administration of justice. From humble beginnings as an informal and ad hoc extension to 'traditional' forms of campaigning, political socialisation, interest aggregation, and consultation, the Internet is now being recognised as a valuable tool for political communication and consultation. Within Australia, the 2001 federal election saw renewed emphasis in the development of professional party websites, offering information as well as interactivity[2]. Even outside of the electoral process, Australian parties are increasingly using the World Wide Web (WWW) as a vehicle for supplementing their offline media management processes[3], and electronic mail (e-mail) as a low cost substitute to direct mail marketing[4]. In a recent article, however, Gibson and Ward's (2002) review of Australian political parties' use of the Internet show that, while some impressive-looking websites have been developed by Australia's major political parties, the overall quality of these sites (in terms of interactivity and participation) was low. This paper seeks to continue Gibson and Ward's work through examining, not the institutional use of Internet technologies in the democratic and policy-making process, but the adoption and adaptation of these technologies by individuals. This aim attempts to close the research gap between research on parties (Gibson and Ward, 2002), departments and agencies (Finn and Holden, 2000, Holland, 1991), and civil society institutions and interest groups (Margolis and Resnick, 2000) through the provision of some baseline data for elected representatives.

This paper falls within the general rubric of 'electronic democracy'. The current debate over the impact of computer-mediated-communications takes two basic forms: normative views about the value of facilitating democracy online and how best to go about implementing the theory in practice (e.g. Canadian Policy Research Network, 1998, Geiselhart, 2000, Nugent, 2001, Toregas, 2001, Coleman and G?tze, 2001, Griffiths, 2002), and case analysis of examples in practice (e.g. Williams, 1998, Geiselhart and Coleman, 1999, Webster, 2001). While not denying the importance of the former work in shaping our future understanding of the technology and its possibilities for enriching democratic participation and outcomes, this report is firmly located in the latter category: an attempt to develop an understanding of current practice, to situate the normative and aspirational against a baseline data set of current reality. As such, the research looks at: the current use of the Internet by Australian elected representatives, enablers for this use, and representatives' interest in use of the technology (now and into the future). To examine these areas, a survey was developed in the first half of 2002 that was issued to every elected representative in Australia (for a more detailed discussion of methodology, see the Appendix). Representatives were contacted either via electronic mail (where a published electronic mailing address was available for them) or via postal mail. Respondents could respond online, via the Internet or a paper form. Overall, slightly less than twenty percent of Australia's total population of elected representatives responded to the survey. This compares quite favourably to a similar research project conducted in Europe (Caldow, 1999, p.7), which received a ten percent response rate based on email requests only[5]. The survey was funded by the Australian Computer Society, the peak body of computer and information technology professionals in Australia.

The survey data shows that Australia's elected representatives have high Internet usage rates when compared with the wider Australian population. In addition, the use of online services for consultation by parliamentarians is quite high, however this innovation has yet to be substantially adopted by local government and Australian Torres Straight Islander Commission (ATSIC) councillors. Supporting the diffusion of technology, representatives' report they are generally satisfied with their institutional computer support, however wide differences can be identified between parliaments and local government provision of computer hardware, software, training, and online support services. In addition, representatives generally see the Internet as an important work tool, and an important vehicle for consultation, however, when ranked against other 'offline' media forms, the Internet does not feature as one of the top three communications channels for elected representatives. When asked about their support for Internet-based voting, representatives report a mixed view: with a majority supporting the practice in some form, but with substantial minorities opposed, or uncertain about the value of the practice. In explaining the differential diffusion rate of online services and electronic democracy, Rogers's theory of diffusion of innovations is applied to show that, based on the relative change magnitude required to implement electronic democracy initiatives, online consultation and the establishment of 'partisan' websites have slower adoption curves than basic use of the Internet as part of the work life of individual representatives.

2 . Findings

This section presents the survey findings, based on a division between elected representatives as either: parliamentarians (Commonwealth, State, and Territory) or councillors (local government councillors and aldermen, and ATSIC councillors and commissioners[6] ). The data is presented with the minimum expository required to describe the figures, and point out important variances based on either gender, length of service, self-reported computer skill level, or rural or urban electorate/ward/riding. Findings are presented for:

  • Use of the World Wide Web;

  • Use of electronic mail;

  • Use of other online services;

  • Internet importance in representatives' work life;

  • Computer literacy;

  • Information technology support services;

  • Prevalence of online consultation;

  • Media preferences; and

  • Online voting preferences of representatives.

2.1 World Wide Web

As illustrated in Figure 1, eighty-five percent of Australian elected representatives' utilise the World Wide Web in some form[7], with most representatives browsing on a weekly or daily basis. This figure is substantially higher than that of the total Australian population, with use of the Internet in 2001 estimated at only sixty-four percent (National Office of the Information Economy (NOIE, 2002), however at the highest and lowest rates of use, there is a marked difference between parliamentarians (who tend to use the web more, and more frequently) and councillors (more likely to not use the web, or to use in moderation). Overall, Victoria is the most active online state, followed by the Australian Capital Territory, Western Australia, New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and Queensland. Representatives within the Northern Territory are the lowest overall users of this technology. In addition to these geographic differences, nationally, rural representatives are less likely to browse the Web at all (22% of rural representatives never browse the web, compared with only seven per cent for urban) reflecting barriers faced in rural areas in securing acceptable access quality, and the use and frequency of use of the World Wide Web directly increases based on the level of computer skill reported.



Figure 1. Graph showing use of the World Wide Web

Figure 1. Use of the World Wide Web


2.2 Use of Electronic Mail

When examining the use of e-mail by representatives, Figure 2 shows the differences between parliamentarians and councillors is less distinct, with both groups tending towards a weekly or greater frequency of overall use, and far less sporadic use of this technology. Parliamentarians are the heaviest users of electronic mail, more than seventy-percent using it more than once a day, while Councillors are more likely not to use this technology (17% as opposed to three per cent for parliamentarians). Overall, the distribution of usage rates between states and territories is similar to that for web browsing, with rural representatives tending to use the technology less and be more likely not to use it at all. Once again, there is a strong correlation between the level of computer skill of the representative and their use of electronic mail, although compared with use of the World Wide Web, there is a tendency for higher use at lower levels of skill, indicating that representatives find electronic mail simpler to use than the World Wide Web.


Figure 2.Graph showing the use of E-mail

Figure 2. Use of the E-mail


2.3 Other Online Services

The World Wide Web and e-mail are not the only online services used by representatives. Figure 3 shows that representatives engage in a range of online activities, with the establishment of websites, telecommuting, and e-mail lists and newsgroups most popular. Representatives are least likely to utilise Internet Relay Chat (IRC), online conferencing, or online work environments. Overall, however, parliamentarians are far more likely than councillors to use these forms of online services, and again urban representatives are more likely to utilise these technologies than their rural peers (double the rate or rural representatives in some instances).


Figure 3. Bar char showing the use of other online services

Figure 3. Use of the Other Online Services


2.4 Importance of the Internet in Work Life

Given the high usage rates of the WWW and e-mail, Figure 4 shows the expressed importance of the Internet as part of representatives' working lives. Both parliamentarians and councillors are likely to see these technologies as 'somewhat important', 'important', or 'highly important', though parliamentarians place greater importance on the use of the technology in their work lives (virtually no parliamentarians identified the technology as less than 'somewhat important'). Councillors are less likely, overall, to see the importance of the technology, over twenty percent reporting Internet technologies as either 'not at all important' or of only 'minor importance'. This distribution is also matched by differences between rural and urban representatives, with rural representatives seeing less overall value in the technology than their urban counterparts. Unsurprisingly, the strongest determinant of representatives' view of the importance of these technologies is their level of computer skill, with skill having a positive correlation to increased interest in the use of the technology.


Figure 4. Graph showing the importance of the Internet

Figure 4. Importance of the Internet


2.5 Computer Skill Level

As the use and frequency of use of information technology and new media by elected representatives is influenced by their skill level, respondents were asked to self-report their skill in using computers, based on a continuum from 'not at all' to 'highly capable'. Figure 5 shows the majority of representatives (both at the parliamentary and councillor levels) report that they either had a basic understanding of computers, or used this technology with confidence, with a sizeable cohort (of approximately twenty percent) indicating a high or very high level of skill. Overall, approximately ten percent of representatives indicated no skill with computers whatsoever, and lower skill levels are found:

In local and regional government, compared with parliamentarians;

Between rural and urban representatives - with rural representatives reporting lower levels of skill overall, with the exception of a approximately thirty-five percent of rural and urban representatives who report 'confidence' in computer use;

Between men and women (men have slightly lower computer skills than women); and

Based on the representatives length of service (more seasoned representatives report lower levels of skill than newer parliamentarians and councillors).


Figure 5. Graph showing self-reported computer skill level

Figure 5. Self-reported Computer Skill Level


2.6 Information Technology Support Services

In addition to the impact of skill on the use of new media, respondents were asked about their satisfaction with information technology support services offered by their parliament or council[8], illustrated in Figure 6. Parliamentarians, overall, are much more likely to find these services 'helpful' or 'very helpful' than councillors, reflecting differential levels of funding available through parliamentary departments than across the wide spectrum of local government (as indicated in Tables 1 and 2). Urban representatives are marginally more likely to view their support services positively than rural representatives, again, indicative of council size and resource differences between the two groups, and the clustering of IT professionals and suppliers in urban areas of Australia.


Figure 6. Graph showing satisfaction with IT support services

Figure 6. Satisfaction with Information Technology Support Services




Table 1: IT resources available to Australian parliamentarians

Table 1. IT Resources Available to Australian Parliamentarians

(Footnotes: Commonwealth[18], NSW[19])




Table 2: IT resources available to Australian local government councillors

Table 2. IT Resources Available to Australian Local Government Councillors[9][20]


Interestingly, as illustrated in Figure 7, women (who generally express a high level of skill with computers than men) are generally less satisfied with their internal IT support than men. While this finding may reflect increasing sophistication of demands that cannot be as easily met, a breakdown of skill level to service satisfaction does not uphold this hypothesis: see Figure 8. Gender bias, therefore, may be a factor in explaining lower levels of satisfaction among women when interacting with their information technology support personnel (Shade, 1993).


Figure 7. Graph showing satisfaction with IT support services based on gender

Figure 7. Satisfaction with IT Support Services Based on Gender



Figure 8. Graph showing satisfaction with IT support services based on skill level

Figure 8. Satisfaction with IT Support Services Based on Skill Level


2.7 Online Consultation

From an examination of the use of Internet services, and the enablers for that use, two survey questions determined the level of application of online technologies for democratic consultation. First, the extent of this practice (regardless of form) was ascertained. Overall, parliamentarians are twice as likely (64%) to engage in online consultation than their peers in local government and ATSIC (32%). However, when the pattern of behaviour is broken into states and territories, a very variable pattern emerges, with councillors relatively consistent in their, albeit low level, of online consultation, while parliamentarians express no consistent pattern of behaviour. At the parliamentary level (Figure 9), Victoria is the most likely state to engage in online consultation (80%), followed closely by the Commonwealth and New South Wales, while South Australia and the Northern Territory (30%) are least likely to engage in this practice. At the local and regional levels, variations between states and territory are less likely, however again Victoria is the most prolific online consulting state (approximately 40%), while the Northern Territory the least (22%).


Figure 9. Graph showing parliamentarians' online consultation

Figure 9. Parliamentarians' Online Consultation


Rural and urban variations are quite prevalent in determining online consultation, urban representatives being more than twice as likely to engage in the practice than their rural counterparts (fifty versus twenty-six percent). Women are slightly more likely to undertake this practice than their male peers, and less likely to delegate this activity to subordinates within their staff or personal aquaintences (such as friends or family members). Length of service also affects the tendency to use staff to engage in online consultation (the longer in office the more likely staff will be given this responsibility), however, the rate of online consultation is not significantly affected by the length of service of the representative. Overall, the single largest determinant of the use of online consultation comes from the representatives' computer skill level, with 'very competent' and 'highly capable' representatives more than ten times more likely to undertake online consultation.

Given these differential usage rates for online consultation, it is not surprising that when asked about the importance of this activity, parliamentarians were more likely to rate this activity as more important than councillors (Figure 10). Overall, however, while approximately forty-five percent of councillors and twenty percent of parliamentarians see this activity as 'neither important nor unimportant', 'unimportant' or 'having a negative impact on democratic consultation', the respective interest level is higher than current practice. This again shows the barriers of resources and skills in limiting uptake of this activity among representatives. However, a further question, attempting to determine the spread of information between elected representatives into online consultation practices shows that only three percent of representatives can name a specific example of online consultation among their peer-network (Figure 11)[10] . Overall, therefore, while interest is high, there is little 'real world' example sharing within the population of elected representatives may be inhibiting further use of this form of online democracy.


Figure 10. Graph showing importance of online consultation

Figure 10. Importance of Online Consultation



Figure 11: Bar chart showing sources of information regarding online consultation

Figure 11. Sources of Information Regarding Online Consultation


2.8 Media Preferences

Because of the subjectivity of likert scale indicators (Neuman, 1994, p.155), the survey also attempted to contextualise Internet preferences with other media forms to determine the relative importance of new media. When asked to rank nine forms of media (Television, Newspapers, Magazines, Radio, Direct Mail, WWW, E-Mail, Outdoor Advertising, and Personal Contacts), both parliamentarians and councillors identified personal contacts, newspapers, and direct mail as their most valuable political communication tools (Table 3), whereas Internet communication tends to rank fifth, sixth, or seventh in importance. Thus, while new media have supplanted some channels (outdoor advertising and magazines) in importance, the technology is not yet of pre-eminent value in communication the political message of parliamentarians and councillors. Generally, electronic mail is seen as more valuable than television (possibly because it can be used as a substitute for direct mail, a higher order media preference), and urban representatives are more likely to value new media than their rural peers. Overall, as indicated in Table 4, the computer skill level of the representative has a direct impact on media ranking, with higher-skilled representatives exhibiting corresponding higher preferences for new media (with mass media, such as radio and television begin substituted lower in their media preferences).


Table 3: Media preferences

Table 3. Media Preferences



Table 4: Media preferences by computer skill level

Table 4. Media Preferences by Computer Skill Level


2.9 Online Voting Preferences

From the examination of current practice, representatives were asked to specify their preferences for extending existing voting practices into the online environment. To date, while there has been one substantive trial of electronic (but not Internet-based) voting in Australia for a government election[11], online voting has not yet been examined in great detail[12]. Given that the electoral process has been under review, and a range of innovations to traditional balloting have been introduced (such as the use of postal voting in some local government elections), it seems reasonable that representatives may have considered some of the possibilities surrounding online voting. Representatives were asked, therefore, to express preferences for online voting either:

  • Opposed to the practice;

  • Uncertain about the practice;

  • Support for online voting for indicative polling only;

  • Support for online voting where monitored by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC); or

  • Support for online voting for all elections and including citizen-initiated referenda.

Overall, as indicated in Figure 12, there is a high level of uncertainty about this process, with approximately one-quarter of representatives uncertain about the practice of online voting (uncertainty is higher among parliamentarians than councillors). One third of representatives are opposed to the practice (higher for councillors than parliamentarians), while forty percent of representatives would support online voting in some form. Within this largest cohort, however, there are mixed responses to the preferred type of online voting, with seventeen percent (of the total population) supporting online voting for all elections and including the introduction of citizen-initiated referenda, fifteen percent in favour of online voting for AEC-monitored elections, and nine percent for indicative polling only.


Figure 12: Pie charts showing support for internet voting

Figure 12. Support for Internet Voting


Within the population, parliamentarians remain the most divided over the subject of online voting (Figure 13), with the Australian Capital Territory expressing the most support for online voting with referenda (50% of ACT Assembly members, reflecting, possibly the recent trial of electronic voting in that jurisdiction), the Northern Territory for AEC-monitored online voting (65%), Tasmania the most uncertain (75%), and Victoria the most strongly opposed to the practice (40%). Councillors, on the other hand, express far lower geographic variations in their preferences.


Figure 13: Graph showing parliamentarians' support for internet voting

Figure 13. Parliamentarians' Support for Internet Voting


3 . Discussion

As indicated in the basic analysis presented within the findings section, it is possible to explain the differential adoption rate for new media and electronic democracy among Australia's elected representatives based on the limitations of enablers for these practices (geography[13], support services, skill, and interest levels). In addition, through the classification of electronic democracy initiatives into four types - facilitative, transformative, novel, and revolutionary - Table 5 shows that, in addition to these restrictions to the further uptake of these technologies, the change magnitude of each type of electronic democracy development is likely to have an impact on the speed to which the more sophisticated electronic democracy initiatives may be introduced (for example, Internet voting including citizen-initiated referenda is requires a magnitude of change larger than the basic conversion of existing ballot-boxes into online voting forms).


Table 5: A typology of electronic democracy developments

Table 5. A Typology of Electronic Democracy Developments

(Footnotes: Political information agents... [21])


Based on this view of change magnitude as an inhibitor for the adoption of electronic democracy, Rogers's (1995) theory of innovation diffusion can be applied to chart the diffusion of these technologies through the population of elected representatives, as entrepreneurs seeking to improve their work processes (Sundbo, 1998). Rogers's interest in innovation takes two forms: interest in the origin of innovations (determinant and agents of), as well as the way in which initial innovations are diffused throughout social networks. With regards to diffusion, Rogers (252-280) identifies a means of connecting the initial point of innovation, with subsequent diffusion of the development through social networks. In attempting to advance the social network diffusion concept, Rogers first identifies a range of adopter categories that follow the time continuum of adoption. These ideal types follow the speed of adoption to identify the characteristics of adopters, from 'innovators' with wide social networks and willingness to adopt new ideas, to 'laggards', suspicious of new technology and who exhibit low levels of innovation awareness. Overall, Rogers sees that the ease of adoption, value of the innovative practice, communication channels (formal or informal) for spreading information about the innovation, the nature of the social network, and the presence or absence of opinion leaders as change agents affects the speed to which adoption moves through the five adopter categories[14]. Because of these factors, Rogers proposes, the cumulative diffusion of innovation will tend to follow a classic sigmoidal curve (S-curve): slow initial growth, followed by mass adoption, tapering as the number of non-adopters reduces.

Based on Rogers's adoption curve theory, and making a distinction between parliamentarians and councillors[15], it is possible to place three key electronic democracy innovations: Adoption of work life Internet use (as a precursor technology to the use of new media for democratic functions), Online consultation, and, Establishment of personal political websites.

With respect to work life Internet use, Figures 14 and 15 show the high adoption rate of precursor technologies. Where a greater variation can be identified, however, is in the overall use of online consultation -late majority adoption for parliamentarians and early majority adoption for councillors - and significant differences between the two groups with regards to the use of personal political websites.


Figure 14: Graph showing parliamentarians' innovation adoption rates

Figure 14: Parliamentarians' Innovation Adoption Rates



Figure 15: Graph showing councillors' innovation adoption rates

Figure 15: Councillors' Innovation Adoption Rates


What this means these figures indicate is that, while Gibson and Ward identified political websites as the focus of electronic democracy initiatives at the party/institutional level, at the individual/representative level, relatively static websites remain of a low order of priority when using the Internet for political purposes. Overall, therefore, while table 3 identified websites as slightly less important than electronic mail for parliamentarians and councillors, the use of Internet technologies for online consultation is strongly oriented towards e-mail. This reflects the dominance of direct mail and one-to-one, or one-to-few communications mediums in the top three media preferences for elected representatives overall, but also highlights some of the difficulties representatives face in the adoption of these facilitative electronic democracy activities.

These difficulties take the form of problems accessing electronic mailing lists for constituents, skills and knowledge limitations, and the credibility gap between the possibility of electronic democracy and practical outcomes for potential adopters (inherent value). Importantly, however, the use of the Internet and online consultation are close to their theoretical limit (based on measured interest levels), while councillors' adoption of partisan political sites lag substantially behind their expressed interest in online consultation. Thus, the greater level of financial, hardware, and support resources for parliamentarians can be seen as overcoming the limited peer experience sharing identified within the social network of elected representatives (as illustrated in Figure 11), a resource differential reflected in councillors' limited uptake, to date, of partisan websites to match their interest level in online consultation. Overall, however, it must be noted that the current data, as a preliminary evaluation of current practice and having limited texture and depth, highlights the need for further research to unpack the different techno-social meanings associated with - not just the Internet - but the variety of functions and interfaces with which the Internet can present the user.

4 . Conclusion

The survey data presented herein provides a baseline for the continued exploration of elected representatives' use of the Internet in Australia. Because of current research emphasis on institutions (government and parties) and civil society organizations' electronic democracy initiatives, there remains no comparative data with which to analyse these findings, either temporally (within Australia) or internationally[16]. When comparing elected representatives use of the Internet, the survey determined a high adoption rate of these technologies among the sample group, however the sophistication of application (with regards to electronic democracy) remains limited overall, reflecting some ongoing problems in determining the best ways to utilise online services for democratic activities that both empower the wider members of the community, and limit general concerns about the validity of participation online (determination of user identification).

In examining the diffusion of the technology, the impact of resources and social network estrangement appear to be the most significant barriers to faster adoption (matching practice to expressed interest levels). The clearest indicator of adoption of the technology for more advanced forms of community interaction appears to be the skill level of representatives, indicating, according to Roger's theory, that there are significant barriers to the understanding of the potential value of these forms of communications tools for representatives with limited IT awareness. Should increased community interaction via online services be seen as a normative good (and this has not particularly been established as a cost-effective substitute for alternative methods of interaction), then increased skill levels for representatives would appear the most beneficial way to enhance the rate of adoption. This, however, prevents a 'chicken and egg' dilemma - if full recognition of value is achieved only through increased use, there remains low motivation for representatives without pre-existing skills levels to invest time and effort in adoption. Overall, therefore, it would appear that limited levels of 'policy learning' exist between representatives in this area (exacerbated by partisan competition, the part-time nature of local government representation, and time constraints), which should be addressed if successful and valuable online consultation and stakeholder interaction is to occur at the individual level. At present, the nature of institutional responses to electronic democracy (State portals, party websites, etc.) have limited transferability to under-resourced municipal government in Australia or representatives acting as individuals, a feature that limits lesson drawing from the more widely publicised experiments with e-government. Adaptable toolsets, best practice and case examples, and targeted funding for skilling are required if Australian elected representatives are to develop this area of practice at the same rate as their institutional structures.


Appendix: Methodology

The aim of the research project was to assess Australia's Elected Representatives:

i. Levels of use;

ii. Democratic utilisation; and

iii. Perceived importance of new media technologies (Internet and online services) in democratic activity.

To assess these three areas of interest, a seventeen-question, largely multiple-choice survey was developed. The survey was developed in two formats: hardcopy for those respondents without an email address and an online survey for those contactable via email. Learning from a previous, unpublished online survey[17], the online survey URL issued to respondents incorporated a check digit that allowed respondents to be automatically verified and allowed for automatic capture of some basic statistical information (tier of government, state or territory of electorate/council, and initial method of contact).

Sample

The identified population of the research project was every serving elected political representative in Australia. A sampling frame was constructed to provide email and mailing addresses for 6,767 of elected representatives from available public sources. From the sampling frame approximately 29% of representatives had identifiable email addresses, the remaining 4,792 were contacted via postal addresses.

Response Rate by Instrument Type

Research Limitations
Two basic research limitations are apparent. First, the sampling method is not perfect. While attempting to sample the entire target population, a number of elected representatives at the local government level could not be contacted because of inability to locate names and addresses and the inevitable shortfall between published information and governments that may have been going through elections. While the overall response rate was high, a number of groups within the total sample were under represented. Groups with a response rate lower than ten percent are:

  1. ATSIC councillors (6.66%), and

  2. Local government councillors of the Northern Territory (5.48%).

Second, some limitations result from the data capture method utilised. While email invitations were used for representatives with email addresses (allowing respondents to directly 'click through' to the online survey) and paper invitations issued to those without, this approach may have some limitations, namely:

The presence of an email address does not guarantee the representative used it (emails may have gone unread); and

As the survey was concerned with ascertaining the use and interest in the medium, the email invitations may have biased responses back towards those representatives with a higher degree of computer literacy and/or interest in the medium. While this may have been moderated by the use of paper-based surveys, Yun and Trumbo (2000) have observed that in general comparison of post, email and web surveys, the use of multiple collection methods attracted a disproportionate response from those using online response methods.


References

1 . I would like to thank my research assistant, Captain Sven Holzheimer, for his assistance with this research, Mr Tom Worthington of the Australian National University for his encouragement in the initial development of the project, Mr Lachlan Pollock for development of the PHP survey script, and Dr Karin Geiselhart and Ms Joanne Faulkner for her input into the refinement of the research instrument.

2 . A good example would be the 'Political Big Brother' website established by the Australian Labor Party that allowed targeted users (the 18 to 35 demographic) the ability to vote members of the government 'out of the house' (Chen, 2001).

3 . A good example would be the 'Truth Overboard' website <http://www.truthoverboard.com/> established to place pressure on the Commonwealth government over the MV Tampa affair, the site was established by the Australian Labor Party.

4 . Brendan Nelson MP, as just one example, provides subscribers with his 'Bradfield Briefing' via e-mail <http://www.brendannelson.com.au>.

5 . Unfortunately the two data sets are not comparative, as the Caldow survey was only issued to representatives with electronic mailing addresses and was aimed at examining the use of new media by 'early adopters' only.

6 . ATSIC is the national policymaking and advocacy organisation for Indigenous people within Australia.
Either directly, or through a member of their staff. 17.3% of parliamentarians and 3.6% of councillors have this function undertaken by staff.

7 . Such as the provision of equipment and software, training, helpdesk services, and assistance using the Internet to publish content.

8 . Based on a random sample of councils only.

9 . This figure is based on a question asking representatives to nominate examples of online consultation.

10 . The majority of citied examples by representatives (10%) pertained to the receipt of e-mail from constituents, followed by institutional examples of this practice (8.8%).

11 . The Australian Capital Territory undertook a pilot in October 2001 for their Assembly elections; Green, 2000.

12 .For a greater discussion of the possibilities, forms, and barriers associated with electronic voting, see Pratchett, 2002.

13 . As indicating access to reliable telecommunications services and IT professionals (NOIE, 1998).

14 . With respect to the diffusion of information technology innovations, the application of Rogers's theory could be seen to include the inherent assumption encapsulated in the 'full integration hypothesis' - that is, 'that information technology has, or will become, an indispensable component of modern daily life' (Vitalari, 1990, p.97). While diffusion theory does measure adoption rates in terms of total population adoption (time for complete diffusion), application of this theory does not necessarily require the acceptance of inevitable technological adoption. For the purposes of this paper, importance measures - indicative of the inherent utility of the Internet to the sampled group - is used as a means of determining the current upper limit of possible adoption based on the perceived importance / interest variable.

15 . A distinction that appears to be somewhat arbitrary when considering the ATSIC and local government respondents. While the functions and resources available to parliamentarians is not widely different across the nation, the local government sector is highly variable in composition, with very large municipalities (such as the City of Brisbane, with over 800,000 residents) vastly different in size, budget, and function to the smaller shires (such as Cox Peninsula Community Government Council, with 252 residents). It may be valuable, but not possible in the context of this paper, to distinguish adoption curves based on State, Territory, and rural/urban division.

16 . While a number of studies have been undertaken internationally (most notably that of Caldow), their age (pre-2000) or methodology (online surveying only) limit meaningful comparison. Given the rapid pace of change to practice in this area (general population adoption of the Internet has increased by as much as twenty percent within one year, this area appears fraught with problems of data obsolescence.

17 . This initial research utilised a CGI script using Perl language to capture data to a comma delineated text file (CSV). The research instrument in this research developed this technique, using PHP scripting to allow for verification imbedded in the unique URL issued to each respondent, this limited the amount of input required from participants and provided additional security to the data capture instrument. The survey was enhanced slightly with basic java scripting to prevent text entry violation of the designated field separation character. In addition, the use of PHP allowed browser types and domain origins to be automatically logged for analysis. Overall, the PHP script had a number of distinct advantages over the original Perl CGI bin method and would be recommended for future online research of this type.

18 . IT and online serves support are undertaken jointly by the Senate and House of Representatives Departments (IT support services), the Technical Services Group of the Parliament (networking), and the Department of Finance and Administration (hardware and software provision).

19 . At the time of writing the NSW IT Support Unit was unable to respond to the inquiry. Support for NSW members is likely to be similar to that of other parliaments.

20 . Based on a random sample of councils only.

21 . Based on Sau's (1999, pp.137-55) view of intelligent agents as co-operatives, autonomous, learning programs.

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