E-mail is under-used in politics

From the BBC:

The dramatic rise in home internet access has failed to plug the communication gap between politicians and citizens, a new survey has found.
The survey, commissioned by Telewest Business, found that only 1% of people have contacted their MP via e-mail.

Nearly half of the 3,000 people interviewed had home net access and 38% said they would e-mail their MP if they knew their address.

But 50% did not even know who their local MP was.

Some have seen the the growth of home net access as a huge opportunity to create closer ties between the state and citizens as well as transforming how individuals communicate with each other.

But there is little evidence that this has happened.

In a separate study, conducted at Strathclyde University, it was found that access to the internet has failed to make people less cynical about the government and is not encouraging people to get involved in the political process.

Nearly a half (45%) of those interviewed for the Telewest E-Politics Study thought politicians should use the internet more and one in five of those interviewed said they would be more likely to vote if online voting was available.

Those aged 18-34 year-olds were the keenest on e-voting.

The results suggest a major rethink if politicians are to engage citizens using the net.

“The revelation that 45% thought MPs should use more internet communication demonstrates that government needs to evolve its communications infrastructure to meet this need,” said Christopher Small, director of public sector at Telewest Business.

Derek Wyatt was one of the first MPs to have a website and it is obvious to him that he should seek as many avenues as possible for talking to constituents.

“Any MP worth his or her salt would want a website and e-mail. It is natural to want to communicate as there could be a vote in it,” he said.

MPs are not obliged to have an e-mail address, despite the fact that they are all assigned one.

Some do not even hold surgeries – the traditional face to face way of keeping in touch with the people they represent in parliament.

Dr Stephen Ward, a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, has spent the last six months analysing MPs websites and is not impressed with what he has found.

“Most offer just standard information and are essentially cyber brochures. Very few offer interactivity,” he said.

He believes most MPs are wary of direct dialogue with their constituents.

“Lots of MPs don’t want that dialogue and feel they haven’t got the time for it,” he said.

The few websites that did impress him were those that were updated on a daily or weekly basis or ones which laid out how a particular MP stood on a range of issues.

Mr Wyatt, who receives around 300 e-mails each day, confessed that many of them were related to very specific local issues but he relished the chance to get involved with the nitty gritty of constituents daily lives.

“In some ways, e-mail has changed the nature of my job. But I deal with everything because every vote counts. I contact the Chief Executive of the local council and magically everything is fixed,” he said.

The dialogue that e-mail opens up between MPs and citizens can also be used to promote a more general political agenda, he added.

Dr Ward believes more MPs, especially those in marginal constituencies, are seeing the value of e-mail to sway undecided voters.

“Some are starting to put e-mails they receive in databases. They know your interests and are able to respond a bit more scientifically,” he said.