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Political guru turned net spruiker Dick Morris was Down Under last week but is net politics really all it is made out to be.

– Republican frontrunner George W. Bush to Democrat candidate Vice President Al Gore.

Australian voters had a taste of politicking on the Internet during the 1999 Victorian State election. Former Premier Jeff Kennett led the way with Jeff.com, an ode to Jeff by Jeff. Jeff.com was followed quickly by Realjeff.com, Kickoutjeff.com and of course Jeffed.com. Criticism and satire won the day and the state Liberal Party will be feeling the effects of Jeff’s hubris for some time to come. But does this mean that candidates should reassess the value of the Internet for campaigning? Dare we consider the possibility of Internet voting in the near future? And exactly what constitutes a political site?

If developments in the current US presidential election are anything to go by the Net will indeed become an important political tool in Australia. A recent poll conducted for Business Review Weekly surveyed 10,768 American adults and concluded that the 2000 election is the first one in which candidates’ Web sites have played “a significant role”. The poll estimated that 18 million people have visited the various candidates’ sites thus far. An earlier Time-CNN poll of 1,589 people in January, found that 28 per cent of Americans said they used the Internet to access information about politics, candidates or political campaigns. Despite this only 12 per cent of political consultants and “high-tech elites” believe the Internet has played a very important role in the 2000 campaign. According to the Digital Snapshot study by the Democracy Online Project of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management 52 per cent of the 128 professionals surveyed described the Internet’s impact as “somewhat important”. Nevertheless, in recognition of the general trend towards politics on the Internet The Washington Post recently assigned a full-time reporter to cover online politics.

But it’s not just the presidential hopefuls who are discovering the Net and using it to connect with their constituents. A new report published by the Progressive Policy Institute recommends directions the US federal government should take to foster digital government and describes how the government can use IT to transform its operations. The report, “Digital Government: The Next Step to Re-engineering the Federal Government”, finds that to accelerate the pace of transformation Congress must do four things:

1.Establish the position of a Chief Information Officer for the Federal Government.

2.Establish a $500 million annual digital Federal Government fund to invest in cross-agency digital government projects.

3.Give agencies flexibility in the use of funds for digital government and let them keep the savings generated by IT.

4.Expand funding for agencies to develop digital government applications.

Official government sites aside, one of the current difficulties of talking about politics on the Internet is that we need a clearer idea of what kinds of sites we are discussing. With the proliferation of terms such as “e-commerce,” “business web sites,” “commercial sites” and dot.coms to confuse the public so also is there some confusion over exactly what a political site is. Internet users will tell you it’s easy to define a “commercial site” (any site with an address ending in .com usually qualifies). Ask what a political web site is and the answer is a little more convoluted. An experienced Internet user will probably say there are many kinds of political Web sites ranging from the most obvious government sites to civic sites like www.freeMalaysia.com, to the newest business sites like former Clinton advisor Dick Morris’s vote.com. (It’s wise to assume that political sites can be commercial sites also.)

Vote.com is an interesting case. It is both a commercial site and a political site. It provides information to voters about politics, but it is also a business. The term “commercial site” or “business site” refers to companies like Amazon.com that sell products. But it’s unclear how to categorise a site like vote.com against a site like Amazon.com. Both are businesses. Like BHP, Coles Myer, and Optus, vote.com is a for-profit organisation.

Prof David Anderson of George Washington University offers a useful way to make sense of the range of political sites. Anderson distinguishes between two main categories of political sites: non-partisan and partisan sites on one hand, and not-for-profit and for-profit-sites on the other. This produces four different types of sites: non-partisan/not-for profit sites; partisan/not-for-profit sites; non-partisan/for-profit sites; and partisan/for-profit sites.

This type of framework allows Internet users and commentators to more effectively make critical and moral judgments about particular political web sites and organisations. In the end, though, these distinctions will be moot unless Internet access is unrestricted and the free exchange of information is encouraged.

Added to concerns about online access are doubts about the effectiveness of political use of the Internet. The Digital Snapshot survey quoted above, shows that professional observers of both the Internet and politics remain unimpressed with political candidates’ use of Web technology in the 2000 campaign so far.

The survey’s research director, Michael Cornfield, believes a number of factors could improve the popularity of campaign Web sites. Top among them: providing voting record listings. “Internet users hunt for information, and potential supporters of a campaign are no exception,” he says. “We know from our earlier research that the online public wants to see how candidates have voted in office.”

Another important factor is interactive opportunities. “This is not a medium for the passive reception of canned messages,” says Cornfield. “The online public wants to explore, to comparison-shop and to have fun.” Accordingly, the survey found that Bill Bradley provided the best free downloadable information and display graphics. John McCain and Al Gore also supplied good downloadable material. And George W Bush offered items for sale but nothing for free.

The survey recommends other factors to improve political use of the Net including: a privacy policy; disclaimers on all materials; promoting the candidate through contrasts (instead of negative or even positive statements which refer only to the opponent or candidate); and integrating the offline and online campaign.

Cornfield says the message from respondents was clear: “The online public has high performance standards. Meet them, and you’ll win votes, dollars, and volunteer hours which could make the difference in this year’s close races.”

The message for our politicians is equally clear: Australians online also have high performance standards – beware of the Jeff.com syndrome.

Peter Fray

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