In recent years, Wuhu City has witnessed rapid social and economic development; however, some new social issues and conflicts are also emerging. The Wuhu Municipal Government sought a new forum for soliciting citizen feedback and opinions; the municipality chose the Internet as the most convenient place to reform through citizen participation. In January 2003, the Wuhu City Government began the “Citizen’s Hopes” (Shiminxinsheng) chat room on its website to collect resident suggestions and concerns.
The slogan of the Shiminxinsheng chat room is: “listen to the voice of the people, understand the will of the people, absorb the wisdom of the people.” The government solicits opinions from the general public via Shiminxinsheng before important decisions related to people’s interests, such as urban planning, economic development strategy and project construction, are made. Any criticism that does not violate libel or national security laws is permitted on the Shiminsheng chat room. The preeminent innovation of Shiminxinsheng is that it makes interactions between the Wuhu City Government and the public relatively convenient and accessible.
In order to sustain public interest in the forum, Wuhu officials have also committed to answering every complaint or question posted to the site. The government has issued a working paper to its departments requiring any department addressed in a Shiminxinsheng post to respond to citizens’ complaints and consultations within 5 working days. The main administrative office of the Wuhu City Government is responsible for overseeing individual department responses, ensuring timely, accurate, and thoughtful replies. Department response levels are now a factor in annual performance reviews. The total chat room reply rate from January to September in 2005 was 97.3%; 100% of citizen complaints were reviewed.
The government publicizes numerous topics related to economic development, social affairs, and governmental operations to guide citizens’ discussion and participation. Members of local People’s Congress and People’s Political Consultation Conference can post their motions and proposals on the website to ask for advice. Internet surfers can also propose topics for the government to consider. Every month there is a designated leader chosen from one governmental department interact live online with Internet users. So far, representatives from the Bureaus of Education, Police, and Finance have all interacted live with Internet users in the Shiminxinsheng chat room.
The influence of the Shiminsheng chat room is not, of course, confined to the Internet. Opinions of Internet users and replies by governmental departments can be publicized through more traditional media, including the daily paper and evening papers, TV stations and radio stations to attract more citizens to participate. A total of 130 volumes of important tips from local authorities and more than 600 topics of Shiminxinsheng have been publicized in the last two years.
This type of chat room-based citizen/government interaction offers a rudimentary model for social governance based on e-government. Shiminxinsheng has operated in three stages: interaction with local media, on-line exchange between governmental branches and internet users, and reinforcing administrative implementation and constructing an e-community. Nearly 7,000 complaints and consultations have been addressed through this forum. In November 2005, Shiminxinsheng became an independent website (http://www.smxs.gov.cn
). Pushed by citizens’ requirements and suggestions posted at the Shiminxinsheng site, Wuhu municipality has built new roads, introduced real estate regulations, and addressed criminal offenses and legal violations.
According to incomplete statistics, 200,000 residents have benefited from Shiminxinsheng, proving the site’s effectiveness as a bridge between the government and the people. By removing the need for direct face-to-face contact, the site has also forced the government to improve its attitude and efficiency by reducing the time and effort required on the part of citizens to make their opinions known. A final, important factor in the establishment of the Shiminxinsheng portal between citizens and government workers is that it enhances the investment Wuhu residents feel in their community by fostering their ability to interact directly with their government representatives.