The Media and Government in the USA, Europe and China
Edited By Christ´l De Landtsheer, Russell Farnen and Daniel B. German
7 Empirical Evaluation of Government and Websites
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University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium
With the networks in place an interactive technology to hand, people can vote on issues, inform themselves on government policy, and interrogate their representatives: they can become the active, effective citizen of the democratic dream (Street, 1997, p. 28).
This chapter argues that websites can be useful to improve democratic citizenship. Since political participation is crucial to democracy, political websites should be constructed to enhance citizens’ participation. Political websites form a particular case, so does their participation friendliness. Therefore, the participation friendliness of political websites is of great importance. This study explores websites’ characteristics that could improve active citizenship. It develops an assessment scheme for the participation friendliness of political websites that takes into account participatory characteristics that are relevant from the point of view of political communication. It also presents an application of this scheme to some political websites in Western and Eastern European countries in 1999. The study reveals profound distinctions between political websites in various Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries as well as distinctions between political websites of CEE countries and EU countries.
User-friendliness for the Citizen
The Internet shows great promise for democracy in terms of revitalized patterns of political communications from a citizen’s point of view. It is often said to be the perfect instrument for returning (at least some) power to citizens. It is considered to have great participatory potential, enlarging and improving possibilities for “ordinary citizens” (not only privileged ones, such as candidates, journalists, rich and influential people, and organizations) to participate in the public sphere of a representative democracy. In established democracies, it is increasingly claimed that citizens are distracted with inefficient participation activities, while important plans and decisions are made elsewhere out of their reach.
The citizens’ political role is increasingly considered too minimal (Barber, 1984). Traditional media (such as press and television) are supposed to be guides for citizens in politics and decision making. They also act as watch dogs to ensure democratic and accountable performances by elected politicians. But they have long been criticized for their inability (even lack of interest) to serve political needs of civil society in any appropriate way. Thus, the arrival of a new, “unmediated” medium (such as the Internet) may reestablish these links between society and politicians as well as bring citizens closer to and better acquaint them with political issues, bypassing and/or supplementing traditional media functions. ← 123 | 124 →
Potentially, the Internet offers even greater opportunities for transitional societies and new democracies. In these countries, the possibilities for political participation and free speech were very limited for decades because of the well-known and vigilant activities of the single party and security service apparatus (Krasnoboka, 2002). Here, the Internet can establish a new type of political participation, devoid of the interference of these previous political regimes and traditional wrongdoing of established capitalist democracies.
All in all, the Internet (with its participation-friendly characteristics like interactivity, world wide and free accessibility, and new user-control features) seems to be quite welcome in different parts of the world. But what would such an “electronically enhanced democracy” look like? The term “electronically enhanced democracy” means any democratic political system in which computers and computer networks are used to carry out crucial functions of the democratic process, such as information and communication, interest articulation and aggregation, and decision-making, including deliberation as well as voting (Hagen, 1997). In general, increasing the level and quality of citizens’ political participation possibilities is a major goal (Barber, Mattson, and Peterson, 1997). Therefore, our main questions are: Does the use of the Internet make it possible to improve the existing representative democratic system by making it more responsive, transparent, and accessible for citizens? Can the Internet really help to enhance the flow of information and communication between and among political institutions, citizens, and politicians? Can websites in the public sphere help to improve citizen participation?
In theory, the democratic potential of the Internet seems appropriate to optimize “role-fulfillment”’ of public actors as well as citizens. That is at least what one group of Internet researchers, the so-called cyber optimists (Norris, 2000) suggest. They hope that the Internet can provide new opportunities for facilitating active citizenship in a representative democracy. With the help of the Internet, people from all over the world can communicate with each other; everyone can access any public actor, institution, or politician to discuss and clearly understand which decisions are made on their behalf and to influence their decisions (Rheingold, 1993; Coleman, 1999; Mambrey, et al., 1999; Bonchek, 1995).
More pessimistic voices claim that the Internet cannot be expected to transform existing disparities of power and wealth, to facilitate increased access to policy makers, or to make political processes more transparent to increase the level of citizens’ political participation. They emphasize the importance of technical and economic problems in accessing computers (Ward, et al., 2003).
Who is right? Strong claims from both sides are not scientifically well founded and research often has not gone further than popular rhetoric. The Internet is a complex and changing medium. Research thereon remains fragmented, not presenting any general and logical picture. So, the answer is currently unclear and requires that we weigh many factors in addition to those stressed already. ← 124 | 125 →
This study lays no claim to accounting for all possible views and criteria concerned with the “democratic” impact of cyberspace. Neither does it take a firm cyber-optimist position. The study starts from the moderate assumption that to make the representative democratic system more responsive and to enhance citizens’ political participation, websites (as an additional channel of political communication) should at least be designed in a participation-friendly way. Besides controversial questions like universal access, media competence, organizational structures, and the people’s willingness to increase their political engagement, one major problem is the design and content of websites in the public, party, and political spheres (Löfgren, et al., 1999; Mambrey, et al., 1999).
Eurobarometer data reveal that only 10% of those with access to the Internet in EU countries visited a party website in 2000. Other data suggest that in the 2000 US and in the 1988 Danish elections, only 7% to 8% visited candidates’ sites. In the 2001 UK elections, only 2% visited party sites (Ward, et al., 2003; Norris, 200lb; Crabtree, 2001). The dominance of dead, dated, and unsatisfying political websites raises doubts about the potential of the Internet to promote a better-informed and more active citizenry (Resnick, 1998; Davis, 1999; Sassi, 2000). We argue that citizens will only be encouraged to use websites if they are easy to access, contain current and engaging content, and are “user-friendly. “
User-friendliness refers to how useable a website is or the extent to which a website supports its users in completing their tasks efficiently, effectively, and satisfactorily (Preece, 2002; Graber and White, 2001). Therefore, the participation friendliness of political websites has user-friendliness as a base, but it also emphasizes how the design of the website can motivate and encourage citizens to become active or to participate in the public sphere both on- and offline.
We next turn to the concept of active citizenship and people’s participation in the public sphere. Then, we introduce our applied assessment scheme. In the section after that, our key research findings for CEE countries as well as EU countries are summarized.
The Internet and Political Participation
Why improve political participation possibilities at all? How can the Internet help accomplish that goal? In a democracy, the main function of citizens’ political participation is to keep the political system balanced by legitimating the actions of the politicians through citizen support (Milbrath, 1965; Barber, 1984). Political participation can be seen in terms of communication concerned with influencing public opinion or participating in the political life of a democracy. Nowadays, in European countries, the prevailing model is representative democracy. Considering the shrinkage of the nation state and the growing importance of (worldwide) social movements (Norris, 200 la and b), the target for such participation has widened beyond national governments. There are various definitions of political participation (Verba, et al., 1978; Milbrath, 1965). For our purpose, we distinguish ← 125 | 126 → among four different dimensions of political participation that could be improved through the political use of the Internet.
First, the basic dimension of political participation is information-seeking. With the Internet, far more information can be made available, which thus can increase e-political knowledge and awareness of political issues. Any kind of political documents (such as political news, submissions from interested parties, and speeches of representatives as well as arguments from private individuals) could be made instantly available. Directly through their websites, parties can provide citizens with much more information than before. The same holds true for candidates, local parties, and individual party members who now can produce their own sites. Dissenting voices can also profit from the electronic platform. Citizens who felt (because of the role of media gate keepers like TV and radio) excluded can autonomously interact as communicators online, spread active information, and react to any article or event (Hague and Uhm, 2003; Ward, et al., 2003; Bowie, 2003). The effect of the opportunities for information seekers that the Internet provides is, indeed, highly dependent on the willingness of public actors to make political processes more transparent. Therefore, the politicians as well as the intermediary systems have to put required political information in an appropriate form on their website (Barber, Mattson, and Peterson, 1997, p. 38).
Active political discussion with one’s family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and elected representatives is the second dimension of political participation. Perhaps one of the best ways to increase citizens’ participation in the public sphere is to foster community connections. Civic networks can provide discussion groups on community issues ranging from children’s playgrounds to local politics. The Internet can give more opportunities for collective public discussion (on- as well as offline) and reflection on issues of importance among citizens, interest groups, and political parties. Such virtual communities are not supposed to replace face-to-face meetings, but rather to complement them (Miller, 1996, p. 35). Moreover, elected representatives can be asked to explain political issues or to report back on their own voting record or speeches. Discussions about progress within legislatures can be held instantly among citizens as well as with politicians. Until now, most communications from party websites were not really interactive. Parties are sparing in their interactivity because opening up one’s site to comment with bulletin boards and chat rooms is a risky gambit (Ward, et al., 2003; Hague and Uhm, 2003; Margolis, et al., 1997, 1999; Davis, 1999). Again, the impact of the Internet in this respect depends on the willingness of public actors to make their sites more responsive.
Voting is the third dimension of political participation. Many scholars believe it is the central, most important one. Traditional mass media (like newspapers and television) are increasingly blamed for not fulfilling their public task by covering prominent and influential candidates/parties and by distorting and trivializing political information instead of making political processes more transparent ← 126 | 127 → (Oberreuter, 1982). Anyhow, there is a widespread decrease in levels of partisan attachment among voters for political parties. The finding from the Dutch 1998 elections that there was a consensus that if a website does not do any good, it does not do harm either, may be worth noting (Ward, et al., 2003; Erik-Lane and Ersson, 1996). The Internet (with its varied interactive information and communication possibilities) can compensate for some of these deficiencies. The new services can engage voters on matters of substance rather than style or symbolic politics, getting beyond 30-second advertisements, sound bites, or the usual horse-race campaign coverage and narrow the distance between representatives and the electorate (Abramson, Arterton, and Orren, 1988, p. 91). Candidates can contact their potential electorate directly and personally and try to convince and mobilize them as Bob Dole in the 1996 US presidential campaign did, “This is an important business - this election is important. I ask for your support, I ask for your help . . . if you really want to get involved, just tap into my homepage.”
Political activity is the fourth dimension. It includes political activists working on campaigns, organizing local party events or citizen initiatives, participating in community forums, and managing or participating in interest groups, social movements, and similar activities. For social movements, the Internet is increasingly useful for overcoming the problem of collective action. And younger voters are more likely to use the web politically because they are the computer-literate generation (Ward, et al., 2003; Coleman, 2001). As a direct and interactive channel of communication, the Internet provides additional ways to prepare political actions on- and offline. Citizens can tell their representatives their demands and needs at length, without fighting for a role as a minor communicator in the mass media system. It may be true that most survey evidence testifies to the dominance of major parties in cyberspace, just as in traditional media (Ward, et al., 2003). Interest groups (including the smaller and less influential ones) now have more opportunities to inform, recruit, and motivate citizens. Lots of other participatory activities (like parliamentary hearings, building-plans, community work, and citizens’ initiatives) can be optimized with these new interactive information and communication possibilities (Gotze, 1998; Barnett, 1997, p. 206). The Internet can facilitate their political expression and engagement (McGookin, 1995; Wilhelm, 2000). The following section deals with identifying the criteria for “participation-friendly” political websites and explains our applied assessment scheme.
Assessing Participation-Friendliness of Political Websites
Our assessment scheme for public websites (De Landtsheer, Krasnoboka, and Neuner, 1999) aims to cover the previously mentioned dimensions of political participation. The main categories of the scheme (see Table 1 in Chapter 6) assess how much political websites contain elements that facilitate citizens’ political participation. Furthermore, the criteria we distinguished are based on the latest ← 127 | 128 → relevant literature (books, articles, case studies, guidelines) of diverse fields (psychology, sociology, political science, media studies, human-computer interaction, web design, computer science, information systems, marketing, entertainment, and business).
This assessment scheme includes four main categories/criteria. These criteria include information, interactivity, user-friendliness, and aesthetics. Each main category includes five subcriteria. The category of Information pays attention to the amount, quality, and type of information. Interactivity deals with the possibilities offered to be an active citizen rather than a disengaged recipient of information. User-friendliness refers to the ease with which users can navigate the site as well as find and use information and services. Aesthetics covers the audience’s whole perception of the website. It addresses the arrangement and style of the written words and of the visual elements with which the medium invites and challenges a user to follow its lead. The criteria and subcriteria are intended to represent minimum standards only, not best practice, so they slightly overlap.
How Informative are Websites?
The first evaluation category is entitled Information. It deals with the general utility of the information, focusing on amount, quality, and type of information. It is not intended to evaluate thoroughly how democratic and reliable the actual site content is. We distinguished the following subcategories for this criterion:
• Self Presentation and Public Relations (value 1). Does the website provide some information about the organization, its purpose, and the institutions to which it belongs? Does the sender use the Internet as a vehicle for appropriate public relations (major events and dates, philosophy, services)? Is the news service well-organized (press releases, press archives, picture archives, contact person)? Does the website provide the citizens with enough information (curriculum vitae, point of view about actual issues, present political position) to form their own opinions about the main persons or institutions of the website? The value 1 is given as a weight factor because this kind of information is basic and crucial for users entering a website; they need to quickly establish its purpose, receive orienting help, and access legal information (such as from whom, why, and for whom the site is made).
• External Information (value 2). Does the site provide for additional information services (e.g., news, the situation abroad, links to other organizations, information about the actions of social movements or related issues such as a link to community activities in the constituency)? Up-to-date information services about upcoming events, about the weather, etc. are included in this category. We assume that the citizens can benefit from this in an indirect way like gaining broader knowledge to prepare to act. It might change how they see the world, spur them to action, or at least attract their interest. It gives them a ← 128 | 129 → good overview about actual political and public processes and allows them to get more detailed information about the subjects and organizations they are interested in. That is why the weight factor here is valued as a 2.
• General/Boulevard Man-on-the-street Information (value 3). This subcategory refers to information that can be made available online from (or about) government departments, citizens’ advice bureaus, libraries, council offices, and many other (public) institutions, particularly on the local level. It should be useful for citizens (e.g., opening hours, job offerings, contact addresses, associations, registered societies, statistical data, information about the use of public funds, events, and cultural offerings, or other kinds of information which might be helpful to active citizens). Also, general information concerning the privacy and security implications of site use is found in this category. The value 3 reflects the importance of matters of interest to the public in general. especially on the local level. Even with increased global/transnational public sphere activity, it is the local level where people’s sense of communal identity tends to be the strongest. Furthermore, activities at the local level might foster latent citizen appetite for political involvement.
• Political Information for the Citizens (value 4). This subcriterion considers whether the supplied political information contributes to the transparency of democratic processes and facilitates deliberation and political participation. During elections, the following would be of special interest: candidates’ personal aims and point of views, statements, speeches, articles, interviews, publications, and other information on actual issues reflecting (partisan) viewpoints as well as various open opinions, election results, political agendas, information about elections and planned actions in the constituency, and local issues. This could encourage citizens to react (e.g., through opinion-building, discussing information with fellow citizens, establishing priorities, and organizing political action). Political information about actual issues is vital for participation; therefore, the weight factor’s value is 4.
• Political Political Background Information (value 5). This subcategory examines whether diverse opinions of citizens, media, or opponents are shown as well as editorial judgment, in-depth analysis, comments, and polls. Does the website provide citizens with issue-specific information of the kind that is not limited by the formal and general presentation of the issue you find in the mass media? Can citizens find a range of different opinions, reasons, and political messages that are not found in. the evening news? Is there any information which compares candidates, messages, issues, or party policies? Such information is essential for understanding politics, for forming your own point of view, and thus engaging in political actions. This reflects the value 5. ← 129 | 130 →
Are the Websites Interactive?
This category deals with the questions: Which possibilities do political websites offer citizens so they can debate with other citizens as well as with politicians, candidates, media, and communities? Does the website treat users as passive recipients of information rather than as active citizens? It was not intended to provide evidence concerning turnaround times or limitations on the service.
• Read-Only-Service (value 1). Does the website give purely passive information without input or feedback possibilities for the citizens? Read-only based websites simply post essays to provide the citizens with (political) information, without giving them a chance to make any kind of comments, requests, reaction, or deliberation. This one-way communication is better than no information but would not meet the needs of the politically interested user; it does not exploit the full potential of the Internet at all. Therefore, we give the value 1 as the weight factor.
• Read-And-Just-Write Service (value 2). One may assume that institutions offer certain opportunities for two-way communications via the Internet This service may include sending an e-mail for further information, filing complaints, or directly contacting a politician, a party member, candidate, or activist. At the end of each single page of the site is there a feedback opportunity via e-mail (e.g., to contact the author) or does this exist only on the starting page or not at all? A personal contact address (on- and offline) at the end of each page gives the citizen a feeling of support and credibility. Contacting the e-candidate might be the first step in getting involved in politics. Thus, the value 2 seems appropriate.
• Electronic Correspondence (value 3).The first two interactive services mentioned previously cannot be seen as original possibilities offered by the Internet. They are relatively often used in traditional political campaigns as well as by traditional media. However, the Internet can be used to intensify and broaden interactive contacts between political actors and citizens. Online guest books and feedback, newsletters, and e-mailing lists allow an increased amount and quality communication as well as its frequency and intensity. Does a website promote online transaction services with regular feedback loop? Do they guarantee reciprocal communication? For example, are there e-mail lists, a guestbook, a newsletter, and online campaigns to join on the website? Does the website link political experts or administrators with “ordinary” citizens? For example, can citizens attend online visiting hours, fill in feedback forms about the website, register online for campaign or party membership, make reservations and order brochures online, conduct or participate in opinion polls on current topics, enroll for a course, or apply for a job online? Value 3 for the weight factor refers to the fact that facilitating such kinds of civic activities via the Internet may motivate citizens for further political engagement. ← 130 | 131 →
• Forums, Chat Groups (value 4). This subcategory concerns possibilities to communicate political information inside or outside elections. Does a website provide a chat room, so that the newly assimilated information can be discussed vertically as well as horizontally (e.g., with the owner of the site) and link citizens directly to one another? Are there forums for different (partisan) citizens/groups to find a public voice? For how many topics does the site offer discussion groups? Are these groups moderated and are political actors joining them? Forums or chat groups that are only provided via a link do not count in this category. Fostering community connections (on- and offline) is said to be helpful for encouraging citizens’ participation. The value 4 for the weight factor reflects this.
• Self-Presentation Possibilities (value 5). This subcategory centers on whether the website helps citizen to engage in, as well as to organize, common activities by themselves. The websites of political parties, politicians, or civic organizations provide a wide range of activities. For example, they can offer citizens an opportunity to make their own pages within a website to present themselves, to share their viewpoints, and to mobilize others. In this way, people can present and discuss actual information that is, in their opinion, interesting for their fellow citizens (e.g., local issues, building plans, activities). For many people, it is still a barrier to buy their own domain and create their own websites. Thus, offering them a “web space” where they can publish content easily can foster their engagement on- and offline. They will feel more involved and can motivate others in a powerful way; therefore, the value is 5.
How User-friendly are the Sites
This criterion concerns how easy it is to use political websites. It concerns the effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction with which users can achieve their tasks. The category also encompasses adapting the website’s design to the needs of handicapped people (e.g., ability to enlarge the text, alternative texts, or additional pictorial descriptions).
• Actuality (value 1). Does the website provide citizens with the latest or major (election) news, press releases, upcoming events, hot topics, regional news, etc.? How frequently is the information updated and how many “dead” sites and links exist? The date of the latest review or content on each page should be stated. It is very important to keep the public informed and interested in elections, even if the news is not directly related to a particular election campaign. This is the basis for establishing credibility and trust; therefore, we use the value l for the weight factor.
• Compactness (value 2). Is information prepared in an appropriate way for publication on the Internet? According to surveys, online readers prefer small information units, presented in a clear way, and they do not like scrolling. On a ← 131 | 132 → website, distracting advertising banners or pop-up messages should be limited. Is information structured well and is it linked so that one can click further when it is appropriate, without surfing through the entire website? Does a website contain quick and understandable units of information and news or does a reader find long articles or copies of printed ones on it? Is there too much superfluous information? Is the most important political information up to the date? The value 2 refers to the necessity for easily readable sites to keep a user motivated and satisfied.
• Search/Navigation Assistance (value 3). On-site search engines and navigational devices are crucial for users to find the information and services they require from the site. There should be assistance with searching and an indication of exactly what the search engine will seek. The results should be according to the keywords the users entered, avoiding too many irrelevant items. The browser system should provide navigation options to the users; these options should be used consistently throughout the site. Good navigation devices (for example, Home>About>Party Leader) display the current page’s context within the site structure, keep users aware of their location on the site, and make it obvious how information is grouped (allowing users to move easily between these groups). Furthermore, there should be features designed to assist browsing, such as site maps, menus with unambiguous button names, and help options. Are all sites included through site navigation or are there “one-way streets?” Without properly working navigation devices and search engines, the users will quickly become frustrated and leave the site; therefore, weight factor 3 seems appropriate.
• Investigation and Documentation Assistance (value 4). Beginners might need some additional help to find required information and services and learn how to use the site. Therefore, it is important to offer appropriate and diverse possibilities for investigation (e.g., databases, search machines, archives), ways to bookmark the site, as well as print or download documents. Different areas (e.g., archives, job section, surveys, interviews, press) should be accessible to the public, not just be restricted to “members only.” Do they offer the content of the website in different languages (English, Spanish)? Does the site provide the option to download or print longer articles? Do providers use innovative technologies to download videos, speeches, or slide shows quickly? Can you bookmark the most interesting sites (no frames)? Good applications for documentation and help will have a supportive effect on the user’s further activities. In this respect, value 4 seems appropriate.
• Links (value 5). Links are characteristic for hypertext; they contain information or recommendations beyond the context of the current text. They should be organized to help the users, but not to distract or disorient them (especially external links). Therefore, the text/name of the link is very important as is its placement. Ideally, a special links-section should be arranged by topic with ← 132 | 133 → instructions. For example, the clever use of hyperlinks can give citizens a good overview of actual political processes and allow them to get (via a “mouse click”) more detailed information. Or they bring together the most important (election campaign) related websites to compare and connect citizens, politicians, and institutions in various combinations. Links can lead citizens back to related on- or offline media resources or to local face-to-face networks that might be better at building social trust and nurturing democratic practices. Strategically connected links through the Internet could facilitate as well as increase citizens’ interest in political participation by guiding them through the site and encouraging political action; therefore, we give it value 5.
Are the Sites Aesthetically Pleasing?
Aesthetics plays an important role in how citizens perceive websites. Aesthetics covers the experience that involves and appeals to our senses and intellect. The mediated feeling of what people are reading, seeing, and hearing makes them stay or click away. It is about how creative, innovative, and appropriate the sites/messages are and if they are designed to attract citizens’ attention.
• Humor/Parody (value l). Even politically interested citizens prefer to be entertained (the notion of infotainment), rather than be subjected to purely formal, dry political information. It is about the style/language of the information. Does a website use political humor (e.g., parodies, political cartoons and caricatures, funny pictures, ironic or polemic ways of writing, funny/sarcastic comments about the lives and loves of political actors, anecdotes)? Are there. additional offerings? We ascribe this category the value 1 because style, tone, humor, emotion, and vocabulary are basic for citizens’ motivation to participate.
• Symbols/Political Propaganda (value 2). This category aims at judging the persuasiveness of political communication and the language used (e.g., metaphors) or presentation of symbols. Symbols can help make abstract topics more concrete. In this context, it is about whether there is an appropriate use of political propaganda and symbols to help citizens engage with the website. Do they often use typical (national) symbols (like the colors of the American flag) to strengthen the feeling of unity and identity? In what way do they try to convince citizens of the importance of their help/support as well as benefits for citizens? How attractive is the language to appeal to or recruit new fans/members? Are the metaphors and symbols used on the website understandable and consistent? Appropriate symbols and persuasiveness make it easier to motivate citizens for political action; value 2 for the weight factor reflects this. But if there is an overload of political propaganda instead of useful political information, the site is not rated as participation-friendly. ← 133 | 134 →
• Pictures (value 3). “One picture is worth a thousand words.” Pictures have always been popular means to convey messages and to persuade people. Photos, illustrations, or graphics can help to visualize a topic/problem and can simplify complex connections. An appropriate design should help form the right impression about the politician, institution, or situation at hand (e.g., pictures of members of parliament or of planned public buildings). Since we think in pictures and they cause effects and construct visual images, this category is very important for enhancing participation. Value 3 reflects this. But if the site only shows pictures of certain politicians (“personalization”) or has manipulated pictures, it would not be judged as “appropriate” because it hardly provides citizens with useful information. This is the same for pictures which have long loading periods because they make users click away. It is more about the quality of design pictures than about quantity. Too many pictures could even conflict with valuable written information.
• Visual Appeal/Attractiveness (value 4). In today’s world, our perception is almost always mediated and all forms of mediation are equally important. There is power in communication beyond written or spoken words (visuals like signs, colors, videos, sound, and body language); nonverbal communication delivers its own message. This subcategory deals with the general style of the website, assuming that the style is inviting and challenges citizens to follow its lead. The pages should be appropriate in length, clearly laid out, and readable. Using headings and the right color and font aid visibility. They should create a space where people feel stimulated and comfortable, reflecting an atmosphere beneficial for building up communities. The site should appeal to the target audience (e.g., a “games for the kid” section). The appeal and friendliness of the website depends on the colors used, typography, unity of single sites, and appropriate use of multimedia elements. These factors influence how much citizens feel encouraged to participate. In this context, important questions include: Are text versions accompanied by parts of video/audio files or pictures/eye-catchers? How funny, fascinating, and colorful is the website? Does it have a unified layout? The value 4 reflects the power of visual communication to raise citizens’ interest to participate.
• Design/Technology (value 5). This subcategory refers to the interface design and technology used. Concerning the technology used, crucial issues are: compatibility with older browsers, loading speed, a supply of alternatives for missing plug-ins (e.g., a flash and html version), the absence of frames to find the site via search engines, and the ability to work the site without changing settings (e.g., screen resolution, enabling cookies). Online readers follow other principles than when reading a print article (e.g., their reading is more superficial, the first eye fixations are different, and they do not like long articles). Therefore, the way the site is set up and structured is very crucial (unifying site structure, arranging elements logically, putting the most important ← 134 | 135 → information on top). Only logically categorized content based on users’ needs will enable citizens to participate without expressing frustration; therefore, we assign the value 5.
How Can We Assess Websites?
The quality of websites is measured according to the previously mentioned four main categories, each of which can attain a maximum of 60. Thus, a perfect website could receive 240 points. We have given each subcriterion a weight factor based on its estimated strength to support civic engagement. The higher value of a subcategory in regard to participation-friendliness, the higher the weight factor. The weight factors are a result of discussion among the co-authors.
Within each main category (information, interactivity, user-friendliness, and aesthetics), a maximum of 4 points is given to each of the subcategories (0 point = not present, 1 point = scarcely present, 2 points = average present, 3 points = above average present, 4 points = overwhelmingly present). These points are multiplied with the corresponding weight factors. After summing up, one gets the points for each main category. The general sum of all categories (information, interactivity, user-friendliness, and aesthetics) presents us with a general indicator of the participation-friendliness of the political website. The more points a website gets, the more participation-friendly it is assumed to be.
Political Websites in Various European Countries
This case study compares certain European political websites from January 1999 to the end of May 1999. In January 1999, we analyzed various political websites in Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK within the framework of a pilot study. During Spring 1999, we examined an extensive sample of political websites in Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, and former Yugoslavia. Then, we compared the results of our websites’ survey within and between Western and Eastern Europe to gather information regarding the development of electronic democracy in Europe.
International statistics (http://www.nua.ie/surveys/how_many_online/europe.html) show that Europe is the second continent after North America to have broad and intensive Internet penetration. Compared to other continents, Europe represents the rich end of the digital divide. However, distribution of and Internet penetration within European countries is far from being equal. On the one hand, a majority of the European Union states can not only compete with the most digitalized country (United States) but on the other hand, can also produce (even better than can the US) positive results on the issue of bridging the gap between Internet have’s and have-not’s. Many countries of the former Soviet Union and Socialist Block have Internet penetration rates equal to African countries. It is more than obvious that on the issue of Internet accessibility, citizens of Sweden (with its high Internet penetration rate and diversity of online services and providers) can not be properly ← 135 | 136 → compared with Albania. In this respect, we can clearly see a serious digital divide within the European continent (Norris, 200la, 200l b). However, this explains only the economic and technical side of the problem. At the same time, we may think about other parameters related to Internet use which can bridge certain differences between Europeans in the East and West. For example, this concerns levels of general and higher (primarily technical) education in the former Socialist bloc’s countries. Quality of education can be seen as an advantage both on the side of potential Eastern European Internet users and on the side of potential website creators in these countries. We may assume that once technology is available there, Eastern European citizens will then develop sufficient skills to use it for their own benefit.
For each country we investigated, we assessed the websites of the main political parties. For the EU countries (the UK, the Netherlands, Germany), we also analyzed the main governmental website and five social movement websites (Greenpeace, Amnesty International, one trade union, one youth organization, and one electronic democracy movement). For the Eastern European countries (Russia, Ukraine, Poland and former Yugoslavia), we analyzed some politicians’ websites as well as a few civil movements. The empirical material for the case study was collected during 1999 when the republic of Yugoslavia still existed. Throughout the text, we therefore continue to refer to Yugoslavia, even though Serbia and Montenegro replaced former Yugoslavia
The European Union Countries
We have evaluated 34 political websites for three EU countries according to the previously mentioned assessment scheme. The United Kingdom (10 sites), the Netherlands (12 sites), and Germany (12 sites) were our test countries. Thes.e Northern European countries were chosen as being among the most technologically advanced democracies in the world. The Netherlands, one of the smallest EU countries, is considered a “consensus” society. The United Kingdom has a highly polarized political system. Germany is a country in which the unification of the former Western (Deutsche Bundesrepublik, DB) and Eastern Germany (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, DDR) provided for economic and political problems and for two types of citizens. Results of our EU test cases are presented in the following paragraphs and in Figure 1. ← 136 | 137 →
The United Kingdom
For this country, we analyzed the governmental website, websites of three major political parties (including Liberal Democrats), three movements’ websites (Fundamentally Green, Amnesty International, and Greenpeace), TUC trade union’s website, a website of the youth group Thinking Politica, and finally, an online democratic portal, UK Citizens Online. Web.sites vary among themselves in points they scored on major categories of participation friendliness (PF). In the “Information” category, three civil websites (Greenpeace, TUC, and Thinking Politica) received the highest possible score (60). They are followed by two other civil websites (57) and an online portal (54). All political parties received relatively low scores, with the Labour .Party receiving the lowest core (29) among all British websites. In the Interactivity category, Thinking Politica had the highest score (56), with the majority of other websites scoring pretty low in the category.
A governmental website and political parties here again have the lowest scores, with the Labour Party warranting only 13 points. In the User-friendliness category, only Greenpeace scored the highest possible (60) and the Liberal Democrats have the lowest (21) among all websites, with all other org.anizations ranging between these two. In the Aesthetics category, the Conservative Party received the highest score (53) among all websites; Fundamentally Green got the lowest (16). Overall, the total score for Participation Friendliness (PF) is the highest for Thinking Politica (217) and the lowest for the Liberal Democrats ( 98), w.ith all websites scoring on average 157 points. When we look at the distribution of scores among four categories of PF examined in this research, we see that the Information category scored the highest average (50), followed by the categories of User-friendliness (46), Aesthetics (36), and Interactivity (26).
For this country, we analyzed one governmental website as well as those of six main political parties, two movements (Amnesty International and Greenpeace), one trade union (CNV), one youth organization, and a social portal. In the lnformation category, four websites (a governmental website, CDA, Amnesty International, .and a student organization) received the highest possible score (60). The remaining websites scored in a range between 51 and 59, with Groen Links receiving the lowest score (49). In the Interactivity category, the governmental website scored the highest (52) and CNV trade union the lowest (13). In the User-friendliness category, the Socialist party got 60 points and Groen Links received the lowest among websites (32). In terms of Aesthetics, the Socialist party reached the highest score (57) and the CNV trade union lowest (29). In general terms, the governmental website received the highest total for PF (214), while the CNV trade union scored the lowest total (129). In terms of average score distribution between different categories, the situation here is similar to one in the UK: Information got ← 138 | 139 → the highest score (56), followed by User-friendliness (45) Aesthetics (41), and Interactivity (32).
In the case of Germany, we looked at the governmental website websites of the six main political parties in the country, Greenpeace and Amnesty International as social movements’ websites, a website of the OTV trade union RCDS student movement’s website, and a social portal, Politik Digital. In the Information category, an online social portal scored the highest (60). Scores for other websites in this category vary dramatically, with Amnesty International having the lowest (18). The same diversity of results is characterized for our second category Interactivity. Here, the German SPD took the lead (51). The student movement’s website scored lowest (9). The gap between the best and the worst scoring websites in the User-friendliness category is also very big, with Greenpeace getting 60, but Amnesty International only 13. Aesthetics has become prominent on the SPD website (54). Once again, Amnesty International scored the lowest (22). In general terms, two international social movements became the best and the worst scored websites for Germany: Greenpeace took the lead (219), while Amnesty International got only 65 points for its Participation Friendliness (PF). In terms of average score distributions among four categories of PF in the scheme, the German case slightly differed from two other EU countries. Here, the Information category (44) was followed by Aesthetics (42). User-friendliness came in third (36), with Interactivity bringing up the rear (29).
If we now compare our results among the three countries, we see that the Netherlands had, on average, the highest PF (174), followed by the United Kingdom (157) and Germany (151.5). To a large extent, the average results across four categories do not differ a lot among the countries. For all of them, Information was the category with the highest score and Interactivity, the lowest. For the Netherlands and the UK, User-friendliness was the second best scoring category and Aesthetics, the third. For Germany, the last two categories were reversed. Having looked at the individual websites across the countries, we found that German-based Greenpeace scored the highest (219) among all investigated websites, just a bit lower than the maximum possible 240 points. It was closely followed by the British youth website, Thinking Politica (217) and the Dutch governmental website (214). Germany also had the website which scored the lowest: Amnesty International (65), followed by the UK’s Liberal Democrats (98).
The Dutch governmental website scored the highest not only in its own country, but among all governmental websites and higher than any political party in these three countries. Among political parties, the Dutch Socialist Party (210) took ← 139 | 140 → the lead, followed by the German Social Democratic Party (199). All international social movements scored rather well and quite equally, with the exception of Germany, where the Amnesty International website had the lowest score among all websites (65). At the same time, Germany’s Greenpeace website had the highest score among all websites (219). Other social movement websites received relatively average scores, neither outscoring other websites nor lagging far behind. However, it is worth repeating that the British youth website had the highest score in its country (217) and the second highest among all websites used in our analysis. At the same time, the Dutch trade union got the lowest domestic score (129) which actually was not very low at all. If we divide websites into two groups (official politics and civil society), official websites scored on average higher in the Netherlands and Germany; in the UK, civil websites got higher scores. However, the difference between two groups was not considerable and, taken together, the average scores for all countries was 157 for official sites and 160 for civil websites.
Central and Eastern European Countries
After our test analysis of the EU websites, we evaluated political websites in four CEE countries according to the same assessment scheme. We chose Russia, Poland, the former Republic of Yugoslavia, and the Ukraine. Russia is the largest European country and a center of the former Soviet Union. Poland is one of the most successful new democracies; additionally, it is a recent NATO member state and a future member of the European Union. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia has undergone dramatic political and social changes during the time of analysis; this provoked our particular interest in political uses of the Internet in a country in a period of crisis. The Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe (in geographic terms) and a former Soviet Union republic; it held presidential elections in 1999. While Poland joins the EU in May 2004, Russia, Yugoslavia and the Ukraine will become the new neighbors of the enlarged EU. Results for CEE websites are presented in the following paragraphs and in Figure 2. ← 140 | 141 →
This country is one of the most representative Eastern European countries on the Internet. It has the greatest number of political parties with websites, nearly 20. This means that almost all leading Russian political parties realized the importance of this new medium. Nevertheless, our choice and scoring of websites was affected by the fact that not all Russian political parties opened their websites, that some websites were under construction (Nash Dom Russia site), or that some were recently revised (Democraticheskij Souz site). Among those parties which have their “pages” on the Internet, we chose the eight most popular in Russia: the Liberal Democratic Party, Communist Party, Democratic Union, Yabloko Party, NDR (Our Home is Russia), Democratic Choice of Russia, Russian Christian Democratic Party, and Constitutional Democrats.
The Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), headed by the charismatic and populist Vladimir Zhyrinovsky, is a popular party in the country. It can be characterized as one of the most nationalist political parties in Russia. CPRF is the heiress of the former USSR Communist Party. This is one of the largest parties in Russia; its leader, Gennady Zyuganov, participated in the Russian presidential elections in June 2000. Democratic Union of Russia is one of the few Russian parties that takes a pro-Western position. This party was created around the famous Soviet dissident Valeria Novodvorskaya. The Russian social-democratic party Yabloko (Apple) is headed by Grigory Yavlinsky, a famous Russian economist and politician. This party is mainly represented and supported by intellectual and professional elites. The party name was created from the first letters of the family names of its leaders (Yavlinsky, Boldyrev, and Lukin) and the party position is social-democratic; the official symbol of the party is an apple. Another party, NDR, one of the most famous Russian parties of power, was created to support Boris Yeltsen in the 1996 presidential elections. The party occupies a centralist position; it focuses on domestic issues, social protection, and the role of Russia in the world. The party leader was Viktor Chernomyrdin, the then Prime Minister. Demokraticheskiy Vybor Rossij (Democratic Choice of Russia) is another party of intellectuals and reformers as well as a former party of power, headed by Egor Gajdar. However, unlike Yavlinsky’s Yabloko party, DVR tries to speak not only to its target electorate, but also to much broader groups of the population. For this purpose, it uses some populist methods. The Russian Christian Democratic Party (RChDP) has Aleksander Chuev as a leader; this party operates very similar to European Christian-Democratic parties. Cadets is the Party of Constitutional Democrats; their leader is Alexander Krutov.
While investigating political websites in Eastern Europe, we realized that the phenomenon of individual political websites is as popular among Eastern European politicians as websites of political parties and movements (if not even more popular than the latter two). Even when the party or political movement has a website, its leader prefers to have his/her own page as well. Considering the poor navigation ← 142 | 143 → help through Russian political websites and the lacking links to other sites, we were only able to find the websites of four Russian politicians. They are the websites of Irina Hakamada, Alexander Lebed, Boris Nemtsov, and Sergey Kirienko. Sergey Kirienko was a former Prime Minister of Russia during the financial crisis in Summer 1998. He had structured and mobilized a reform project for the Russian economy, but was dismissed as Prime Minister and got a very negative evaluation from the Russian population. Hakamada is a famous Russian economist and one of the few female members of the Russian Parliament. Alexander Lebed is a former general of the Soviet Russian army, the governor of the Krasnoyarsk region. Boris Nemtsov is the former Vice Prime Minister of Russia.
Finally, we looked at three websites for social movements: .Revolutionary Young Communist League, National Patriotic Front Pamyat, and the Russian National Unit. Among the three social movements chosen for our analysis, two (Pamyat and Russian National Unit) have a very strong nationalistic position. The third movement (Revolutionary Young Communist League) is a radical leftist youth movement which operates in several former Soviet Union republics.
Russian political websites differ with respect to visual appeal and exploitation of the Internet’s interactive potential. The average score of the political sites was 126. However, if we evaluate separately websites of political parties and movements, on the one hand, and personal websites of politicians, on the other, we come up with an average of 104 for parties and movements and 187.5 for personal websites. The winner is the Kirienko’s website (221) with Hakamada’s site as a well-scoring second (211) and Yabloko party’s website coming in third (207). (This was the best score for political parties and movements.) Yabloko had the most properly and successfully developed website among Russian political parties. In comparison with others, Yabloko was characterized by the most interactive usage of the Internet’s communication facilities (for example, connecting the electorate and their representatives via e-mail). The party chose the “newspaper” (tabloid) design of their website, but in a clearly structured way. The Internet is primarily used by the party for two reasons: self-presentation and improving the communication flow among party members. The party is planning to create the first virtual party primary organization in Russia. Their website contained several interactive forums, numerous discussion groups, permanent opinion polls and small surveys, separate pages of its youth organization, and sites of regional organizations. Moreover, it has a virtual library (consisting of the most famous Russian and Soviet philosophical, sociological, and political books and articles since the end of the sixth century), which is remarkable.
Also the following websites scored above average: the Liberal Democratic Party (129), Russia’s Democratic Choice (133), and the Cadets (134). From an online marketing viewpoint, LDPR was probably the most successful example. Out of several interactive possibilities offered by the party’s site, only the discussion group failed since it was not moderated and lacked serious participation. The ← 143 | 144 → currency of the website is visible from the starting page; instead of the usual party logo, they used pictures to portray the latest events, accompanied by slogans such as “Peace in the Balkans! No Bombs!” This is the most appropriately illustrated website among Russian political parties. Liberal Democrats even offer a song about Russia, sung by the party leader. People can send a letter to any LDPR member of the Parliament, read party announcements, and check schedules of radio and TV programs about LDPR or other related subjects. “Our news,” which presents and explains the current events (from the party’s viewpoint), is the brightest and most promotional part of the website.
The worst-scoring party website was the Russian Christian-Democratic Party (30). Three other party sites scored well below the average: the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) (53), The Demokraticheskij Souz Rosij (Democratic Union of Russia) (40), and Nash Dom Rosija (Russia is Our Home) (50). The information on the Communist Party website is only about the party, itself. The site provides complete information about the party, its political publications, actions, events, and activity. Bibliographical references are poor; the English version is almost undeveloped and not up-to-date. The design gives a strict impression; although well structured, the website is stingy with visuals.
In contrast to the websites of the political parties, individual politicians use the interactive channels of the Internet to a much higher degree. Sergey Kirienko (whose website takes the lead among Russian political sites) realized the idea of an Internet parliament. Visitors to the Kirienko website can discuss the goals and tasks of the e-parliament. In addition, there are many different types of discussion groups and voting possibilities on current issues of Russian political and social life. Kirienko is probably the only Russian politician who is not “afraid” to tell funny stories about his life and political activity and who invites the visitors to join him, telling jokes and anecdotes about Kirienko, himself. Irina Hakamada and Kirienko have permanent discussion groups and virtual communities on their pages; visitors can read questions to and answers from politicians, talk to each other, and suggest new forms of communication. On these pages, one can find not only articles (written by the politicians) and their biographies from other media, but also stories about them, told by the members of their families and their friends. These websites contain real photo albums, which tell stories about the private lives of “real” people. Politicians’ websites that score around the average are the ones by Lebed (158) and Nemtsov (160).
We also evaluated websites of several Russian movements. The server of Pamyat (Memory), Russian Orthodox Monarch National Movement, scored best (156). The most remarkable element of the site is a photo collection of the Russian Orthodox icons, a library of books devoted to Russian history, and a collection of Russian church and folk music.
If we look at the best and worst individual scores of the websites through the subcategories of Participation Friendliness, we see the following picture. In the ← 144 | 145 → Information category, Yabloko got the highest score (56), while the Democratic Union Party received only 2. Other scores are distributed rather unequally between different websites. In the Interactivity category, two personal political websites (those of Hakamada aud Kirienko) got the highest score (60), followed by Yabloko (58). At the same time, the Democratic Union received only 2 points in this category; two other websites, the NDR and Revolutionary League, had 3 each. Kirienko’s website also scored the highest (60) on the topic of User-friendliness, while the Russian Christian Democratic Party got only 1 point. In the Aesthetics category, the Liberal Democrats and Lebed’s personal website received 56, while the Democratic Union got only 8. If we look at the distribution of average scores between different PF categories, we find that the Aesthetics and User-friendliness categories are the most prominent, scoring an average of 35. They are followed by Information (30.5) and Interactivity (25.5).
Political websites in Poland scored 58 points on average. Poland has the highest number of “dead” sites. Most of them were used during previous parliamentary/presidential election campaigns and were not updated subsequently. Polish websites hardly use any channels of interactivity. Electronic correspondence devices, self-presentation possibilities for citizens, and forums/discussion groups are rarely found. There is one site that has relatively good scores compared to the others; the Polish People’s Party (PSL) (131). It is the only site that contains any navigation/investigation help. The other sites belong to the Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland (SDRP) (67), Conservative People’s Party (55), Christian Democracy of the Third Polish Republic (50), Movement for the Republic and Patriotism (45), and Solidarity Electoral Action (42) as the coalition of centre-right forces, the heiress of the famous Polish trade union “Solidarnosc” headed by the first Polish president, Lech Walesa. The lowest scores are for the Movement for the Reconstruction of Poland (17), which is a right-wing European-oriented party with roots in the Polish independence movement.
Looking at scores of individual websites in different categories, we see that the Polish People’s Party scored the highest for all categories, with 40 for Information, 12 for Interactivity, 46 for User-friendliness, and 33 for Aesthetics. By contrast, the Movement for Reconstruction of Poland scored the worst for all categories, with 6, 2, 1, and 8 points, respectively. The average distribution of scores through different PF categories is similar to that in Russia, although it is much lower. Aesthetics scored the highest (19), followed by User-friendliness (17), Information (16), and Interactivity (6).
As mentioned earlier, dramatic events in Yugoslavia during Spring 1999 conditioned our choice of this Central European country. We wanted to see whether ← 145 | 146 → the Internet was used by political forces in the country under such special crisis circumstances. We looked at the websites of the six main political parties in the country: New Democracy, Serbian Socialist Party, Serbian Renewal Movement, Democratic Party, Civic Alliance of Serbia, Congressional National Party, New Communist Party of Yugoslavia, and the Serbian Unity Congress.
The average score of Yugoslavian political parties is rather high (139). It is mainly achieved through the Aesthetics and User-friendliness categories, with a majority of the websites displaying extensive photo reports from the war and providing their visitors with different tools for searching and navigating. For example, the Serbian Unity Congress website contains numerous links to political/governmental/independent media websites all over the world to give people access to different viewpoints. They also introduced an interesting interactive service where people can send their questions and suggestions not only to the party members, but also to members of the parliament and even to the American president and vice president. Several Serbian websites also introduced fast news service, mainly to update users on current military developments, new targets, and war casualties.
The average score for Yugoslavian parties is 139. The Serbian Unity Congress received the highest score (208), followed by the Congressional National Party (181). The latter is a right-wing Serbian party, headed by Serbian professors and other representatives of the intellectual elite. Further websites that received above-average scores were the Serbian Socialist Party of Slobodan Milosevic (162) and the Democratic Party (158). Party sites that scored below the average were the New Communist Party (123), the Civic Alliance Serbia (97), New Democracy (96), and the Serbian Renewal Movement (81).
In the Information category, the Congressional National Party received the highest score (54). New Democracy scored only 5. The Serbian Unity Congress scored the best in the Interactivity and User-friendliness categories (39 and 60, respectively). The Congressional National Party also got 60 for User-friendliness. The Civil Alliance of Serbia got the lowest score for Interactivity (4) and the Serbian Renewal Movement received the lowest score (24) for its User-friendliness. In the Aesthetics category, the Serbian Socialist Party of Slobodan Milosevic obtained the highest score (56), while New Democracy scored the lowest (37).
The average distribution of scores through different PF categories is similar to the first two CEE countries we analyzed. Aesthetics scored the highest average (45), followed by User-friendliness (43), Information (36), and Interactivity (15).
In the Ukraine, we discovered five political websites for our analysis. Three of them are websites of political parties (Hromada, Edyna Rodyna, and Zeleni) and two are the personal websites of famous national politicians (Olexander Moroz and ← 146 | 147 → Evhen Marchuk). In former times, Hromada was the second strongest opposition party in the Ukraine (after the Communist Party of Ukraine), but it lost popularity since the 1998 parliamentary elections due to a criminal process initiated against its leader, Pavlo Lazarenko. The Green Party (Zeleni) resembles Western Green parties. It has a large number of seats in the parliament and proclaims that it will do its best for the ecological future of the country and that it will stay independent. Three other sites had been newly created because of the approaching presidential elections in the Ukraine. Two of these sites are personal websites of the presidential candidates (Moroz and Marchuk), the third one (Edyna Rodyna), is a party website intended to present one more presidential candidate, namely its leader, Olexander Rzhavsky.
On average, political websites in the Ukraine scored 103. Overall, the use of the Internet by the Ukrainian political parties is similar to the Polish case. Political websites are mainly created and used there during elections. Hromada and the Green Party of Ukraine are good examples of this. Both sites were created before the last parliamentary elections in the Ukraine and were not subsequently updated or changed. These sites received the lowest scores: Hromada (76) and the Green Party (64). Both personal websites of the politicians have become the country’s best websites, with Marchuk’s scoring the highest (137) and Moroz second (127). These sites are doing quite well with presenting diverse information about politicians, but they are disappointing in terms of interactivity.
The following results were achieved in the separate PF categories. In the Information category, the Moroz (45) website scored the highest and the Green Party (9) the lowest. Interactivity is poorly represented at the Hromada website (2). The website of Evhen Marchuk scored the highest (16). Both Marchuk and Edyna Rodyna scored the highest (32) in the User-friendliness category, with Zeleni (17) lowest. Aesthetics is managed best on the Moroz website (52), while the Green Party was lowest (17).
The distribution of average scores between different PF categories differs slightly in the case of Ukraine compared to other CEE countries. Although Aesthetics is again the best scored category (38), it is followed by Information (29), then User-friendliness (25), and Interactivity (11).
Over the considered period (Spring 1999), the scores for Participation Friendliness of the political websites in CEE countries range from 139 (Yugoslavia) and 127 (Russia) down to 103 (Ukraine) to 58 (Poland). No website reached the maximum score of 240. The best websites were the Russian sites of the politician Kirienko (221) and the party Yabloko (207) as well as the Yugoslavian site of the Serbian Unity Congress Party (208).
Also the Information category scored less than half of possible points with an average of 28 for all countries. Scores for Information range from 36 (Yugoslavia), ← 147 | 148 → 31 (Russia), and 29 (Ukraine) to 16 (Poland). While the subcategory “General boulevard information” scored weakly, “Self-presentation” was pretty well presented. Interactivity (actually introduced in our research as the paramount category) is the weakest one, with average scores of only 14.5. Scores range from 26 (Russia), 15 (Yugoslavia), and 11 (Ukraine) to 6 (Poland). Several websites offer nothing beyond their read-only-service. Electronic correspondence and especially chats/forums are unknown for the majority of the parties’ websites or remain scanty at present. Equally average for all countries were the criteria for User friendliness. User friendliness scores ranged from 43 (Yugoslavia), 35 (Russia), and 25 (Ukraine) to 17 (Poland); all the CEE countries together reached an average score of 30. The Aesthetics category refers to visual appeal, design/structure, symbols/propaganda, and pictures. Scores ranged from 45 (Yugoslavia), 38 (Ukraine), and 35 (Russia) to 19 points (Poland). All websites (except those from Poland) differed in the form of visual appeals, but managed to achieve a satisfactory level. They present their sites with a consistent layout; separated “personal,” “party,” and “external” issues visually; they used pictures and text in a balanced way. Only the subcategory “humor” was usually absent on each site. Regarding the assumption that citizens will only use political websites if they are efficient and easy to use/navigate and if the content is current, the key findings in this category are disappointing. But at least Russian and Yugoslavian websites put news about the situation in Kosovo as the main subject on their site during the conflict Each of these websites contained a political position and a party declaration on this question. Nothing like this could be found on Ukrainian and Polish websites. The hyperlinks between websites were varied (concerning diversity), but most of them provided links to the government of the country, the parliament, or foreign parties with the same political orientation. Remarkable is the fact that several Russian and Yugoslavian parties created digital libraries, giving citizens a chance not only to look through their catalogue of publications, but also to read and print many of the books and articles using PDF files.
Unfortunately, only a minority of the politicians/political parties is using the possibilities of the Internet to its full potential. Although Russia is the winner concerning the “proper” use of the Internet among CEE countries (Yabloko for parties; pages of Hakamada and Kirienko for all websites), Russian sites still offer limited opportunities to connect the electorate with their representatives. There is also a lack of self-presentation possibilities for citizens. All parties see self-presentation as the main reason for their appearance on the websites. But self-presentation is realized very narrowly. That is, in general, there is information about party history, activities, documents, congresses, etc. Links to other pages include only the pages of fellow parties within the country and abroad, under the name “addresses of our friends.” Visual attractiveness is understood from the position of party symbols and propaganda. Humor is absent almost everywhere. Biographies of party leaders are serious and “dry.” Only Yavlinsky has some ← 148 | 149 → comments from his friends and relatives about his childhood. Moreover, only two out of eight parties use the interactive channels of the Internet in an appropriate way. This low level of interactivity can have diverse reasons: first, parties have not yet realized this magnificent opportunity on the Internet; second, most of them are afraid of a torrent of feedback/criticism from citizens; and third, they are unsure about how to deal with it.
All the politicians’ sites are friendly and not very politicized. They invite visitors to consider and communicate with them as a “normal” person, instead of merely politicians. Therefore, the main aim of the private websites of Russian politicians can be characterized as a desire to present their “human face.” All Yugoslavian websites are current and favorably compete with the Russian sites when it comes to quality and amount of information. They also have the highest level of personalization. Nevertheless, they share the same weakness as the remaining sites: low level of interactivity, lack of humor, and general boulevard information. The Ukrainian websites have more in common with the Polish sites concerning the reasons and goals of their use. Actually, most CEE sites were created during the last election campaign. While Russia and Yugoslavia try to update them and even change their appearance occasionally, Polish and Ukrainian politicians use the sites for elections alone. They seem to have forgotten about them thereafter.
Among the political websites, the ones of individual politicians are more “open” for contacts with citizens. However, such websites exist only in Russia and the Ukraine; they are completely absent in Poland and Yugoslavia. At the same time, the Ukraine and Poland have the highest number of “dead” sites. (This means the sites that are used in the pre-election period are not updated afterwards.) The read-and-just-write service is the most commonly used interactive element. Another practice of many parties is to give a direct answer to citizens’ questions on the websites, themselves.
This analysis was aimed at discovering features of the Internet used by political parties in Europe. At the same time, we also wanted. to see whether any considerable differences exist between the political Internet in Western and Eastern Europe. In very general terms, our results show that the Internet is used by diverse political forces throughout Europe. There seems to be no connection between the use of the Internet and the political position (right, central, or left) of a party or group. Similar to their Western European colleagues, CEE political parties are familiar with the new medium and its exploitation for political needs. What is common for all countries and parties across Europe is the use of the opportunities the Internet provides as an additional channel to influence and attract the voters. However, the Internet means used for this aim by Western and Eastern European political actors differ in their quality and intensity. We believe that our assessment ← 149 | 150 → scheme clearly shows these differences in Internet use. It has not come as a big surprise that all Western European countries perform on average much better throughout different Participation Friendliness categories (Figure 3). There are more than 100 points difference between the country with the best average score for political websites (the Netherlands) and the one with the worst (Poland). At the same time, there is only 12 points difference between Germany and Yugoslavia. Paradoxically, a personal website of Russian politician, Sergey Kirienko, got the highest score (221) among all the websites we analyzed. However, there are also many CEE websites which scored less than 10 in different categories. Moreover, the category of “dead” websites seems to be a rather Eastern European “phenomenon.” Thus, while certain political websites can compete with Western colleagues, the average score for the East is lower.
It is also worth considering differences in the priority given to different PF categories in East and West. While Information is undoubtedly the most prominent PF categories for Western political websites, Aesthetics is the most prominent category for Eastern political websites, with Information coming third as a rule (with the exception of the Ukraine). It can be concluded that Eastern European politicians consider visual attractiveness and broader, symbolic, and visual language to be as important as (or even more important than) the printed word. Such an approach may be related to very recent political transformations in the CEE countries, each country’s search for a new identity, and quest for united national factors. In this respect, prominence of the same category (Aesthetics) in the case of Germany compared to two other Western countries seems to be particularly interesting.
Practically all European political parties experience one common challenge: to use the interactive possibilities provided by the Internet. For many proponents of greater political participation, deliberation, and strong democracy, interactivity is the very feature which distinguishes the Internet from other mediated forms of politician-citizen communication. Via interactive communication, an almost equal dialogue can re-emerge between citizens and politicians and a stronger sense of accountability can be re-established. However, Interactivity has become the weakest category for both EU and CEE political websites
The low level of interactivity can be explained in several ways. We believe that politicians may fear or be unwilling to display any other than their own opinions on the Internet. They may not even be fully aware of the Internet’s possibilities nor recognize the importance of interactive dialogue. It is also true that online communication is time- and means-consuming. It may even require additional personnel involvement on a permanent basis. Additionally, many political actors (particularly in CEE countries) may not have sufficient financial funds for such activities. Moreover, many CEE parties may have simply not yet developed any particular communication strategy since the average age of these parties is 10 years. As a result, many politicians choose the easiest way and use the Internet as they use ← 150 | 151 → any other mean of communication and propaganda. However, it is very important to stress that there are two Russian personal websites which have scored 60 in the Interactivity category and one party’s site merited 58.
Our particular focus on political websites in Yugoslavia was provoked by the desire to see whether conditions of political unrest and military crisis may affect the use of the Internet by political parties. If we are to evaluate the use of the Internet by Yugoslavian political parties in one word it would be “creative.” The political unrest and military aggression has forced politicians to use all information means available to them. Yugoslavia got the highest average score among CEE countries. Its political websites were filled not only with up-to-date information and impressive photo collections, but also they developed many rather successful and user-friendly applications. It is constructive to imagine for a while in which conditions (the war) Yugoslavian parties used their websites appropriately to support their positions.
Finally, two CEE countries (Russia and the Ukraine) presented us with a new type of political websites which we have not been able to find/identify in other European countries. These are personal websites of prominent politicians. In addition to the fact that such websites promote political personalization online, they have become the most effectively developed websites in Eastern Europe and have reached the levels of the Internet use for politics similar to those in the European Union countries.
We are aware that our explorative analysis will leave some open questions and can only provide a general overview. We hope to inspire future examinations to look more closely at how and why people access and use political websites and to base the design of a website on thorough consultation with its potential users to find out more about their needs and wishes as well as difficulties encountered when visiting the website.
Some suggestions for a higher “participation-friendliness” are the following:
• Maintain a greater focus on users’ needs in site design and content (e.g., develop and organize the site content around user groups, provide content in relevant community languages).
• Help users determine the legitimacy of the information and the consequences of their use of the site (e.g., provide the name of the agency, responsibility for content, disclaimer, date of last review or update, detailed and user-friendly information on privacy, security). ← 151 | 152 →
• Exploit the interactive capacity of the web for participation in government processes (e.g., provide features for two-way communication between individual members of the pubic, community groups, business and other organizations, and government agencies).
• Improve accessibility to site content for all users, including those with disabilities and those with less advanced technology and skills (e.g., provide a text equivalent for all non-text elements and provide alternatives to high level technology).
• Make sure representatives adapt their work practices so that they can manage these new additional channels of connection with the public. All jobs are conducted within structures; if the structure does not adapt to accommodate new technologies, there is no point in blaming those trapped within it.
• Develop e-democracy into an integral part of representative democracy. To do this, we must devise mechanisms for promoting public deliberation, embedding it within the constitutional process, and demonstrating real links between public input and policy outcomes. Citizens will soon tire of contributing their thoughts if no apparent account is taken of them.
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