The federal government may be encouraging citizens to use its online services, but many members of parliament have yet to understand the power of the Internet as a tool to communicate with their constituents.
A recent Centre for
Collaborative Government study suggests 58 per cent of Canadian MPs have their own official Web sites but that only a quarter of them use interactive tools like feedback forms.
“”The sad truth . . . is that most of them (MPs) are pretty distant from the technology and frankly don’t understand and personally don’t use it a lot,”” said the centre’s director, Donald Lenihan. “”There’s not a lot of understanding of the real creative possibilities here. Even among those who do have Web sites, a significant number of them just use it to post static information, and even that isn’t very imaginative.””
Part of the problem, said Lenihan, is that MPs may not know where to turn in order to improve their sites or get them launched in the first place. Parties and caucuses may have limited resources available to them and private sector companies don’t necessarily understand what type of Internet services a politician would require.
But there are politicians who have learned to turn the Internet to their advantage, both as a means to communicate with constituents and promote an agenda. Jack Layton, a Toronto City councillor who is running for leadership of the New Democratic Party, has had a Web site since 1995 — before many large corporations got their own Web sites up and running.
Layton, who held a press conference Monday to announce his “”real deal for the Canadian community”” leadership platform, said his Web site helps him connect with citizens. He spoke of “”electronic citizenship”” and “”Internet politics”” as new ideas that Canadian politicians are only now beginning to recognize. “”What we’re trying to do is (provide) the opportunity for people to open a dialogue,”” said Layton. Young people who had become disenchanted with politics are now showing an interest in political debate and policy by participating online. Layton referred to the phenomenon as a 60s-style re-engagement.
Layton got a lot of help along the way — mostly from one of the students he taught at Toronto’s Ryerson University in the early 1990s. Journalism student Chris Carder took Layton’s political science course and the two started batting around ideas about politics and the Internet over drinks after class.
Carder began teaching Layton how to use HTML. “”That training lasted for two minutes,”” according to Carder. “”Then (Layton) said, ‘I can’t do this. Couldn’t you just build something?'””
Carder is still publishing Layton’s Web site and is now CEO of Toronto firm ThinData, which offers a suite of 30 different content management applications. ThinData also hosts sites for MP Libby Davis and MPP Joe Cordiano, as well as sports figures like former Maple Leaf goalie Curtis Joseph and Toronto Raptor Jerome Williams.
Layton takes particular interest in the operations of his Web site, according to Carder, and posts his own polls and video clips he films with a camcorder. “”Jack is one of the few clients that generates as much mail as Curtis Joseph,”” said Carder.
Lenihan invited Layton to speak at the Crossing Boundaries conference last year and met with both Layton and Carder to discuss political Web sites. “”They’ve got a comprehensive Web site, and it’s the exception rather than the rule, but it’s a promising exception,”” said Lenihan. “”They’re out there developing the company and probably new expertise and new ideas for how to do it.””
Lenihan is confident that in a few years, “”You would have a hard time to find an MP that doesn’t have a Web site,”” but said that Canadians are currently lagging behind Americans in this regard. The Centre for Collaborative Government report notes that Senator John McCain and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura have both successfully used the Internet as a campaign tool.
“”(McCain) understands, or at least his staff does, this technology and he has shifted from just being in campaign mode to being John McCain the Senate advocate,”” said Steven Clift.
Clift, based in Minneapolis, Minn., runs a newswire service that looks at online democracy and speaks regularly on the subject of the Internet’s role in government. More politicians will begin using personal Web sites as a young, Internet-savvy generation begins to take political office. “”It may be that those that are more Net savvy are more likely to be elected. I don’t know. My guess is that perhaps they will,”” he said.
In the meantime, more firms like ThinData may be able to take advantage of a growing base of political clients. “”There may a career opportunity for a number of people to move into that field and start learning what politicians want and need,”” said Lenihan, “”because all of a sudden they’ll be spending money on it.””