The Internet is likely to become one of the most effective tools in Canadian democracy, a new study predicts, but politicians must be able to handle the change. What makes the study noteworthy is that many of those who wrote it are elected leaders themselves. The Centre for Collaborative Government (CCG) released E-Government: The Message to Politicians in October. It is the third segment in the group’s Crossing Boundaries initiative, which looks at the impact of ICT on government and democracy in this country. The study is the beginning of a process that will see follow-up sessions across the country, culminating in an international conference next year. The political advisory committee on the project is made up of two Liberal MPs and one Canadian Alliance member; four provincial politicians, representing the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives; and the mayor of New Glasglow NS. A study on the use of e-based tools produced disappointing results. Of the 301 members of the House of Commons, only 58 per cent have functional web sites. Even more disheartening is that only one-third of those sites have some sort of feedback system. "As one participant remarked," the CCG report notes, "not only are too few MPs making use of new technology, those doing so are in ‘send’ and not ‘receive’ mode." To remedy this problem, the report suggests the adoption of a more inclusive model that would involve citizens in governance. One possibility is to establish e-voting through referenda, thereby giving people a direct say in how things are run. A second option is to abandon the formal hearings currently used by government and set up consultation as conversation.   "The conversation would be one between Canadians, not just with government," the CCG maintains. "Government may be a participant and a facilitator in such a conversation, but it is not the paternalistic voice of order and authority, seated at the front of the room, to which participants must address themselves as witnesses before a committee." But getting people to take part in those efforts will be difficult if the process is too cumbersome, another study finds. The NFO CFgroup of Toronto last week released State of the Net: Communicating with Government Online. The polling firm presented respondents with a list of types of involvement utilizing the Internet. It discovered that the more intensive, time consuming or unfamiliar the activities are, the less appeal they hold for citizens. "The capability of the Internet to enable real-time communication between a number of participants using text, audio or visual formats, means it could potentially be used to conduct virtual meetings between citizens and various levels of government," the NFO report states. "Such activities would demand significant effort on the part of citizens." The most popular form of government interaction is the submission of consumer complaints. A majority of respondents (81 per cent) supported this option. Another 65 per cent endorsed the idea of signing petitions online. Other options were less enthusiastically received. Only 36 per cent backed the notion of virtual meetings with federal government officials; virtual meetings with their provincial counterparts was only marginally more popular at 38 per cent. Virtual town meetings were endorsed by 36 per cent of respondents. The CCG report makes note of situations where politicians have embraced the Internet. The New Democratic Party is planning to permit online voting in its leadership convention next month (NL, July 15/02). Reg Alcock, the Liberal MP from Winnipeg South, has long employed the Internet in his constituency office (NL, May 22/01). "Not coincidentally, he is one of the few government members in Manitoba to have increased his margin of victory – handsomely – in the last federal election," the CCG report concludes. It also points to efforts south of the border. Outgoing Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura relied on the web to recruit voters, who helped engineer his upstart victory four years ago. Similarly, Arizona senator John McCain was able to raise US$5 million for his presidential campaign from his web site. The effectiveness of the Internet as a political tool is not limited to large campaigns. According to the New York Times, Renée Valletutti ran for school board in Brevard County FL and got the best return for her money through the Internet. Yard signs cost her US$4,500, a newspaper advertisement set her back US$500 but her web site cost a mere US$20 per month. She lost to an incumbent trustee by 258 out of 33,444 votes cast. The CCG recommends that politicians start promoting e-government. This should be a two-pronged approach. Inside government, federal and provincial/territorial politicians should champion the idea in caucus, at committee hearings and in the House of Commons and provincial/territorial legislatures. Outside, they could be involved through public meetings, media sessions and academic forums. One advantage to adopting e-government could be a reversal of the decline in voter participation. The NFO study finds that interest in elections goes up if citizens are online. "Compared to voter turnout in the latest elections, Canadians who have access to the Internet are significantly more likely to vote than Canadians in general," the report says. While voter turnout in the 2000 federal election was around 60 per cent, 82 per cent of respondents with Internet service said they voted. Similar enthusiasm was shown for provincial votes (81 per cent) and municipal campaigns (67 per cent). About two-thirds of those who participated in the NFO survey said they were interested in voting online. Convenience was the most frequently given response, followed by saving tax dollars, faster tabulations of votes and better informed voters. Among those opposed to online balloting, privacy concerns were paramount. Sixty-nine per cent cited this as the reason for being against Internet voting, the only answer to gain a majority response. Other issues raised were wanting to be sure the method is sound before adopting it, voting in person is more convenient, not planning to vote and problems with slow Internet connections.