Commentary: Local Government, the Internet, and Sustainability

Date01 January 2014
Published date01 January 2014
Val Washington is attorney at Allen
& Desnoyers. Previously, she oversaw
the upstate off‌i ces of the Environmental
Protection Bureau of the New York State
Attorney General’s Off‌i ce, later became
executive director of Environmental
Advocates of New York, and, more recently,
served as deputy commissioner in the New
York State Department of Environmental
Local Government, the Internet, and Sustainability 99
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 74, Iss. 1, pp. 99–100. © 2013 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12165.
Val Washington
Allen & Desnoyers, LLP
In their article, Sonia Royo, Ana Yetano, and
Basilio Acerete attempt to measure local govern-
ment commitment to sustainability goals by
examining the existence and success of e-participation
tools.  eir dispiriting conclusion is that use of the
Internet by municipalities—in this case, European
municipalities—to engage the public on sustainability
issues has been halfhearted and largely unsuccessful,
even for those local governments that have signed
on to a larger, high-prof‌i le coalition ef‌f ort. But, as
the authors point out, we are still learning how the
Internet can be used as a democratic tool, and it may
well be that a municipal Web site is simply not a
promising vehicle for the promotion of a local sustain-
ability agenda.
e authors begin with a somewhat desperate premise
that has also been embraced in the United States,
which I will paraphrase this way: in the absence of
focused national and international action on climate
change, much rests on the willingness and ability of
local governments to act on their own initiative to
encourage sustainable practices.  is assumes, fairly,
that national leadership has shown neither the courage
nor the vision to act in a responsible way on climate
change, despite a capacity on the part of the citizenry
to learn and act in pursuit of sustainability, leaving it
to government of‌f‌i cials who are in more direct touch
with the public to harness that capacity.
is construct places an enormous burden on munici-
palities, and the authors choose e-participation as a
surrogate to measure commitment to meeting that
burden. Perhaps this is unfair.
Focusing f‌i rst on the ability of a municipality to take
on sustainability as a priority, it must be said that
the economics of governing at the local level has
been particularly fraught in the recent past. Most
cities across the United States are struggling to meet
their basic obligations. It is, therefore, more likely
for a local government to incorporate sustainability
practices when those practices are compatible with a
tight budget or, better, make a dollar go further.  ere
is also a requirement for expertise, which often goes
beyond existing staf‌f resources. It is not surprising that
the authors found a lot of window dressing surround-
ing municipal initiatives that was not matched with
actual community engagement.
To the extent that progress has been made, successes
are attributable to a number of factors that feed into
municipal capacity.  e authors mention the greater
likelihood of progress in communities with a highly
educated citizenry.  e cities in the United States
most noted for environmentalism and a sustainability
ethic, including a particularly famous handful in the
Northwest, are characterized by a youthful, idealistic,
and prosperous citizenry, which has certainly had a
great inf‌l uence on municipal policy independent of
any administrative mechanisms for public involve-
ment.  ese cities have variously adopted zero-waste
goals, plastic bag bans, bike and car sharing, smart
growth initiatives, and alternative energy incentives.
All of these initiatives are points of pride for civic
leaders and citizens alike.
Even in less well-to-do communities than Seattle, San
Francisco, and Portland, the public often provides
the inspiration for municipal action rather than the
reverse. To the extent that polling, petitioning, or
lobbying reveals a strong public desire for new initia-
tives, whether hike/bike opportunities or constraints
on municipal pesticide applications, local govern-
ment will try to be responsive. Needed expertise often
comes from larger governmental units—in the United
States, this would be either state or federal agen-
cies—or from environmental organizations. Nonprof‌i t
organizations, in particular, also play a critical role in
rallying the public in a way that local governments do
not ordinarily do.
As for the issue of the Internet as a tool for progress,
the results of the study are not surprising. With the
range and amount of information available to almost
every citizen, municipal governments are not in a
Local Government, the Internet, and Sustainability

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