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Survey: Open government may benefit quality of life

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  1. Freedom of Information
A study published this week found a potential link between government transparency and the well-being of residents. Citizens who believe…

A study published this week found a potential link between government transparency and the well-being of residents. Citizens who believe their community's information systems, government, media and such are performing well are more likely to be engaged in their community and are more satisfied with the quality of their community as a whole, the survey found. It also drew correlations between the public's perception of community information systems and its overall relationship with its community.

The survey research was conducted by the Pew Internet Project and the Monitor Institute, and funded by the Knight Foundation. A total of 1,510 citizens responded to the poll questions: 503 in Philadelphia, 503 in Macon, Ga., and 504 in San Jose, Calif.

Lee Rainie, director of Pew Internet Project, explained that these three communities were chosen because they allowed for "on-the-ground" research due to a connection with the Knight Foundation. "In particular these communities have staffers who work for the Knight Foundation. And these surveys were only part of the research that was done, some of the other research . . . involved talking to community leaders, and those community leaders were brought together by the Knight Foundation staffers in those communities," he said.

The March 1 final report, "How the Public Perceives Community Information Systems," expounded upon the poll's answers. One major deduction from survey responses is a connection between open government and civic action. The reports said: "Those who think their government shares information well are more likely to say that people like them can have an impact on government." In general, positive responses were connected to an open local government and a strong local information system.

For instance, the report also found that those citizens who believed their government is open also answered positively to questions concerning other aspects of life. "Residents who said in the surveys that their local government was good at sharing information were more likely to feel satisfied with a host of other aspects of life," the report said. The list of other aspects included: the ability of information systems to give them information that matters, the performance of civic and journalistic institutions, and feelings of efficacy and empowerment.

An unusual discovery the survey made is that citizens responded positively to questions on the quality of information systems even if they hadn't used them. Residents "express satisfaction with the quality of the [systems] even if they do not necessarily have any current personal information need that they want to address or even if they have not recently interacted with parts of the system. It might be the case that people’s general good feelings come from what they have learned second hand," the report said.

The survey results also relayed that residents are beginning to use social media to learn more about their communities. Of Internet users in the communities, 32 percent received their news from social media websites. However, printed newspapers, magazines and television are still considered important sources of information about the resident's city or neighborhood. The survey also found a correlation between more avid information consumers and their civic engagement.

Of the three communities polled, San Jose had the highest satisfaction rate. The report associated this with the citizens of San Jose being the "most wired" of the three communities.

The report concluded that "there are suggestions in these findings that a more robust information system brings its own rewards in citizen satisfaction and the performance of the organs of civic culture."

"Our reaction was really positive," Mayur Patel, director of strategic assessment and assistant to the president for the Knight Foundation, said of the results of the survey. "It was a pleasant surprise at just how strong a force open government can be in communities."

Patel explained that the Knight Foundation realizes that "Information is a core community need and . . . a critical element of community building." He said: "We decided to do the survey because it's part of a wider exploration of local information ecosystems."

On continuing to research local information systems, "We really saw this [survey] as a first step," Patel said. "What we'd like to do is further explore some of the relationships found in the Pew research," such as the correlation between Internet users and their civic action.

The Knight Foundation also produced a tool kit based on this survey, and hopes to further develop the kit to help communities enhance and embrace their local information systems, Patel said.