October 2002 // Volume 40 // Number 5 // Feature Articles // 5FEA4

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Information Technology Use by Local Governments in the Northeast: Assessment and Needs

Abstract
How local governments are using information technology is important to understand if extension teaching on local government and economic development issues is to be effective. This study uses results from surveys of local officials in New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia to examine the potential for delivering extension programs to local officials through information technology. The responses suggest that local officials predominantly prefer face-to-face training, but many are willing to try distance education. In addition, even though many governments are using the Internet, there still are significant numbers who do not yet have access to these technologies.


Timothy W. Kelsey
Professor of Agricultural Economics
Penn State University
University Park, Pennsylvania
Internet Address: tkelsey@psu.edu

Michael J. Dougherty
Extension Associate Professor/Extension Specialist
West Virginia University
Morgantown, West Virginia
Internet Address: Michael.Dougherty@mail.wvu.edu

Michael Hattery
Research Associate
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York
mrh3@cornell.edu


Local governments in the Northeast are involved in a variety of important public policy issues. Most local officials in the region are volunteers and lack formal training in governance on many of the complex issues they face. Improving their knowledge of these issues and their skills and abilities is a vital mission of Extension in many of the region's states.

Recent changes in information technology, such as the Internet, have the potential to significantly alter local government officials' access to information and training on important public issues and the ability of Extension to deliver educational programs to officials. Information technology, similarly, has made it easier for local governments to provide information to their citizens and to handle information, communication, and other important management concerns.

How local governments are using information technology, both as users of information others have posted (e.g., retrieving regulatory information from a state agency or participating in Web-based training) and as providers of information for others (e.g., having a municipal or county Web site with budget information or a newsletter for citizens), is important to understand if Extension teaching on local government and economic development issues is to be effective. Accurate information about local government usage of information technology, the barriers they face, and the potential use of information technology for local government training would make it easier to develop multi-state educational programs in the Northeast and to take advantage of the potential advantages of information technology as a means of teaching Extension programs. This article uses results from surveys of local officials in New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia to examine these questions.

Background

There have been several state-level studies of the needs of local officials in the region, but these have been with a single-state focus, lacking coordination across state lines to identify cross-cutting issues. Kelsey and Lembeck (1995a, 1995b, & 1998) surveyed every Pennsylvania township and borough (all 2,516 of them) in 1994 and asked a variety of questions about computer use, training needs, and local service provision. About 55% of the respondents reported using a computer, with larger municipalities being much more likely to do so than were smaller municipalities. Dougherty and Plein (1997) conducted a needs assessment survey of 1,803 local officials in West Virginia in 1996 and found that economic development issues were rated as most important.

The potential of using distance education technologies to provide training for local government officials similarly was ignored in these prior studies, even though it has potential for great time- and cost-saving benefits for both students and instructors. The use of distance technology similarly would make it easier to provide multi-state trainings across the region.

Distance education-based training has been widely used for extension educators. These include in Alabama (Stuempler, Jelinek, Brown, & Sanders, 1997), Nebraska (Mescher, 1995), Pennsylvania (Escott et al., 1996), Texas (Hiel & Herrington, 1997), South Carolina and Georgia (Lippert et al., 1998), Oklahoma (Stewart & Soliah, 1987), and Oregon (Patterson & Wykes, 1992). It has time- and cost-saving benefits, particularly when used to teach a large number of widely separated sites (Boland, 1988). A videoconference produced by Oklahoma State University and received at 24 sites across Oklahoma, for example, cost only $2.91 per person, compared to $9.13 per person if it had been delivered in-person (Stewart & Soliah, 1987).

Distance education methods can be viewed more favorably by Extension educators than face-to-face sessions. Participants in a Nebraska leader training program, for example, preferred satellite delivery over in-person training, 63% to 35% (Mesecher, 1995). Those results might suffer from self-selection bias, however, because the survey focused on participants in the satellite-based program. People who prefer in-person training might simply have chosen not to participate in the program because it was distance education-based.

Despite this enthusiasm by some for distance education, it is unclear exactly how receptive local government officials in the Northeast would be to distance-based training. An attempted statewide local government training program in Pennsylvania based on Pic-Tel™ technology, for example, was canceled in 1995 due to lack of sufficient registrations, despite being actively supported and promoted by the state's local government associations and Department of Community Affairs. It is important to determine local officials' attitudes towards distance education-based training.

Methods

Parallel mail surveys to local government officials were conducted in New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia during the spring of 2000. The survey instruments included a series of questions on how the local governments are using computers, their use of information technology, and the officials' personal interest in participating in local government training programs. The surveys also included some state-specific questions.

The survey methodology in each state followed a modified Dillman method (Dillman, 1978), with an initial mailing, reminder postcard, and follow-up mailing to non-responders. Due to funding differences, the sample sizes varied across the states, from 799 in New York (463 returned, for a 58% response rate), 474 in Pennsylvania (306 returned, for a 64.6% response rate), and 496 in West Virginia (168 returned, for a 39.5% response rate). In all states, the sample was randomly selected from official state lists of local government officials.

Results

The survey respondents in New York represented that state's mix of communities when gauged by size of place or region of the state. The respondents were well balanced across the population size range from small to large municipalities and corresponded well to the size distribution of such jurisdictions in the state.

Respondents to the Pennsylvania survey similarly were generally representative of municipalities in the commonwealth. The smallest municipalities (those with less than 500 residents) were slightly over-represented (19% of respondents, compared to their accounting for 14% of all municipalities), while moderate-sized (population between 1000 and 2,500) were slightly under represented (25% of the respondents, compared to their being 30% statewide).

About half of the survey responses in West Virginia came from cities, and half came from towns, providing a good cross section of the state's local governments. Large cities were somewhat over represented in the responses.

Use of Computers

The vast majority of municipal governments in the three states use computers in their operations. Almost all municipal governments in New York and West Virginia use computers, while adoption has been somewhat less in Pennsylvania (Table 1).

Table 1.
Percent of Local Governments Using Computers in Their Operations

Type of Municipal Government

Use Computers

New York

All municipal governments

97%

- Town governments

95%

Pennsylvania

All municipal governments

79%

- Borough governments

86%

- Township governments

75%

West Virginia

All municipal governments

92%

- City governments

99%

- Town governments

76%

Accounting was the most commonly cited function for which computers were used by municipal governments in the three states (Table 2). Payroll and board minutes and correspondence were also very common functions. These functions are basic management functions of municipal governments. In general, fewer municipalities reported using their computers for planning functions, such as GIS-mapping, or capital planning. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many municipalities do not do these types of planning functions, regardless of the technology they use.

Table 2.
For Which Functions Is a Computer Used?
(percent of local governments using computers)

Function

New York

Pennsylvania

West Virginia

 

Cities

Town

Village

Boroughs

Townships

Cities

Towns

Accounting

100%

93%

95%

90%

95%

94%

76%

Payroll

100%

85%

93%

76%

90%

94%

62%

Annual Budgeting

100%

82%

95%

91%

88%

90%

62%

Capital Planning

83%

36%

61%

43%

38%

52%

17%

Board Minutes & Correspondence

92%

82%

95%

96%

94%

70%

71%

Inventory/ Materials Management

92%

50%

69%

38%

47%

51%

27%

GIS - Mapping

67%

27%

28%

23%

24%

37%

5%

Police/Sheriff

100%

23%

63%

68%

56%

90%

58%

Internet and Web Sites

More than half of the municipal governments reported having access to the Internet. This ranged from 47% of towns in West Virginia, 56% of towns in New York and townships in Pennsylvania, to 82% of cities in West Virginia and 100% of cities in New York (Table 3). A greater percentage of municipal governments with computers reported access to the Internet, suggesting that many local officials view Internet access as an important priority. And yet it is important to note that around one third of all municipal governments across the three states did not have Internet access, despite the general optimism about the Internet, and thus are unable to access Internet-based resources or training.

Among those with Internet access, retrieving information from state agencies was the most commonly cited Internet use (Table 3). Correspondence and email similarly was a very common Internet use, with use ranging between 49% and 79% of the different types of municipal governments. Very few local officials reported having used the Internet to participate in on-line training. Of the three states, West Virginia had the highest reported use of the Internet for on-line training, done by 14% of their city governments.

Table 3.
Access & Use of the Internet

 

New York

Pennsylvania

West Virginia

 

Cities

Town

Village

Boroughs

Townships

Cities

Towns

Has Access to the Internet

Percent of all municipal governments

100%

56%

66%

62%

56%

82%

47%

Percent of governments with computers

100%

58%

73%

69%

67%

83%

56%

For What Purposes Does Your Local Government Use the Internet? (percent of those with internet access)

Retrieving information from:

             

- State agencies

100%

89%

83%

88%

87%

76%

65%

- Local governmentÍs state association

92%

60%

59%

69%

79%

60%

41%

- Other local governments

69%

46%

40%

36%

46%

54%

41%

Sharing information with citizens

35%

35%

30%

35%

22%

42%

22%

Correspondence/email

74%

74%

79%

75%

67%

66%

49%

Participating in on-line training

6%

6%

6%

8%

2%

14%

5%

The percentage of municipal governments having a Web site varied among the three states. About 85% of the city governments using computers in New York reported having a Web site, compared to 56% of cities in West Virginia, and only 31% and 48% of towns and villages in New York, and 16% and 28% of townships and boroughs in Pennsylvania (Table 4).

Table 4.
Municipal Web Site

 

New York

Pennsylvania

West Virginia

 

Cities

Town

Village

Boroughs

Townships

Cities

Towns

Has Municipal Web Site

Percent of all municipal governments

85%

30%

44%

25%

12%

56%

17%

Percent of governments with computers

85%

31%

48%

28%

16%

56%

20%

What Types of Materials Do They Have on Their Web Site? (percent of those with a municipal web page)

Contact information, such as officials names & phone number

85%

27%

37%

97%

95%

92%

46%

Links to other organizations in the community

85%

15%

30%

62%

65%

70%

46%

Local community newsletter

31%

9%

15%

41%

55%

30%

23%

Planning information

46%

8%

8%

10%

60%

26%

8%

Budget information

31%

5%

8%

17%

30%

22%

15%

Regularly posted meeting minutes

39%

11%

15%

48%

60%

30%

15%

Responses from the local governments with a Web site suggest that many municipal Web sites are fairly basic and not very extensive. Other than the townships in Pennsylvania, less than half of the municipal government types in any of the states reported using their Web sites to share community newsletters, planning information, budgets, or meeting minutes (Table 4).

Training

Many of the respondents have participated in at least one type of local government training program. Officials were most likely to report having participated in a face-to-face training setting in their own county than in another type of training (with the exception of city and town officials in New York, who were slightly more likely to have participated in a video downlink- based training) (Table 5). Around two-thirds of the municipal officials in Pennsylvania had participated in such face-to-face training, compared to a little more than half of the town and village officials in New York and 32% and 24% of municipal officials in West Virginia. The next most common type of training was a classroom setting with a video downlink. Not many local officials had participated in training programs that used alternative delivery methods, such as microcomputer/CD-ROMs, audio tape-based correspondence course, video tape-based correspondence course, or Web site-based correspondence course.

Table 5.
Types of Training Methods the Respondents Have Used

Training Approach

New York

Pennsylvania

West Virginia

 

Cities

Town

Village

Boroughs

Townships

Cities

Towns

Face-to-face classroom setting their county

31%

59%

52%

63%

68%

32%

24%

Classroom setting with video downlink

39%

64%

31%

24%

24%

20%

12%

Correspondence course with notebooks

8%

10%

13%

13%

14%

19%

6%

Microcomputer/CD-ROM based training

8%

10%

14%

10%

5%

10%

5%

Correspondence course with workbooks and audio tape

23%

8%

15%

8%

8%

16%

6%

Correspondence course with workbooks and video tape

15%

13%

23%

8%

7%

18%

9%

Correspondence course with workbooks and website/email interaction

15%

6%

7%

3%

2%

3

0%

The officials were asked which of the training methods they have experienced that they liked the best and which they liked the least. The overwhelming choice for most types of local officials was face-to-face training. Nine-six percent of Pennsylvania township officials who have participated in such a training, for example, preferred it to all other training methods (Table 6). In contrast, 56% of the borough officials and 43% of the township officials in Pennsylvania who have experienced a video downlink-based training liked video downlink training least of all. The other non-face-to-face training methods had similar negative ratings from those who have experienced them, with the sole exception of city officials in New York, who were as likely to favor correspondence courses with workbooks and videotapes as they did face-to-face instruction.

Table 6.
What Percentage of the Officials Who Have Experienced a Training Method Like It Best (and Least)?

Training Approach

New York

Pennsylvania

West Virginia

 

Cities

Town

Village

Boroughs

Townships

Cities

Towns

Face-to-face classroom setting their county

50%
(0%)

67%
(7%)

73%
(7%)

85%
(14%)

96%
(3%)

100%
(3%)

84%
(11%)

Classroom setting with video downlink

25%
(25%)

20%
(18%)

11%
(16%)

8%
(56%)

0%
(43%)

11%
(28%)

0%
(33%)

Correspondence course with notebooks

0%
(0%)

0%
(31%)

7%
(17%)

0%
(67%)

6%
(36%)

0%
(47%)

40%
(40%)

Microcomputer/CD-ROM based training

0%
(0%)

23%
(0%)

0%
(8%)

30%
(0%)

29%
(50%)

22%
(56%)

0%
(25%)

Correspondence course with workbooks and audio tape

0%
(0%)

0%
(47%)

8%
(18%)

29%
(20%)

8%
(22%)

7%
(36%)

20%
(40%)

Correspondence course with workbooks and video tape

50%
(0%)

15%
(21%)

4%
(14%)

13%
(38%)

0%
(33%)

6%
(13%)

14%
(14%)

Correspondence course with workbooks and website/email interaction

0%
(0%)

19%
(36%)

13%
(33%)

0%
(33%)

0%
(0%)

33%
(0%)

--
--


Table 7.

Which Training Methods Local Officials Would Like to Try

Training Approach

New York

Pennsylvania

West Virginia

 

Cities

Town

Village

Boroughs

Townships

Cities

Towns

Face-to-face classroom setting their county

8%

17%

19%

12%

11%

24%

14%

Classroom setting with video downlink

23%

9%

16%

9%

16%

21%

13%

Correspondence course with notebooks

15%

15%

18%

16%

19%

9%

12%

Microcomputer/CD-ROM based training

31%

31%

30%

24%

20%

20%

15%

Correspondence course with workbooks and audio tape

0%

17%

17%

16%

14%

9%

10%

Correspondence course with workbooks and video tape

8%

23%

18%

19%

18%

11%

12%

Correspondence course with workbooks and website/email interaction

15%

24%

23%

19%

16%

19%

6%

Implications

The survey responses suggest that many local government officials' experience with distance education so far has not been particularly good. Face-to-face training was the overwhelming preference, even for those who have used alternative training methods. Less than half of those who have used distance education-based training like it best of all training methods, while more than half liked it least. This is particularly noteworthy for video downlink-based trainings, a finding which contrasts sharply with Extension's recent optimism about satellite- and other distance education-based training.

It is important to understand the training context in which these attitudes are being expressed. The majority of local officials in these three states are volunteers who work at another job during the day and conduct their local government work during the evening and weekends. Getting these officials to attend trainings can be difficult, at best, even when they understand they need training because they have enough other activities demanding their time. If they have doubts about the method of training, such as many in this survey express towards distance education, there will only be a greater disincentive for them to attend such training.

It was not possible to evaluate the quality of the distance education-based training the respondents had experienced, but the percentage of local officials willing to try alternative training methods suggests that a well-designed distance education-based training program could find a sufficient audience. In addition, as officials become more familiar and comfortable with distance learning and as high-quality training programs prove their worth, the general attitudes towards distance learning may become more favorable.

The survey responses also indicate that even though computers and the Web are being used by many local governments in the region, there still are a significant number of local governments who do not yet have access to these technologies. It is important that Extension, state agencies, and others who provide information and resources to local governments not rely solely upon the Web for disseminating information, or these governments will be excluded.

Despite these cautions, the survey responses do indicate that there are major opportunities for Extension and others to help local governments take fuller advantage of their computers, particularly for capital planning and GIS training. The key issue that should be thought through is the best way of providing such training, particularly given the local officials' attitudes towards training.

Acknowledgments:

Funding for the project was provided, in part, by a grant from the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development.

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