Panel Paper: State Legislators and Communication Technology: An Exploratory Mixed-Mode Study of The Arizona House and Senate

Thursday, November 7, 2013 : 3:00 PM
West End Ballroom D (Washington Marriott)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Joe Franklin West, Arizona State University
Almost as far back as recorded history, advances in communication technology have impacted the governance process. Examples over history abound: Ancient Greeks used high intensity lamps to communicate state intelligence information quickly across great distances (Dembskey, 2011), helping to spread the empire.  In America, the printing press foments political unrest, resulting in the American Revolution (Bailyn, 1992).  And, in a more modern example, legislators use the Internet to communicate with large numbers of citizens (Mezey, 2008), significantly extending the reach of their message with little added cost.

While there is disagreement among academics with respect to the specific impacts of communication technology on the behavior of elected officials, examination of the existing literature leaves little doubt that changes in communication technology precipitate changes in legislator behavior.  Bimber (2003) notes the abundance of literature on, and the “profound impacts” (p. 75) of, communication technology on elected official behavior.  The popular question today seems not to be if communication technology is impacting elected official behavior, but how.

The research in this paper utilizes a novel mixed methods sequential exploratory strategy to examine the complex relationships that exist between communication technology and elected official behavior. Focusing on Arizona House and Senate legislators, their staffs, and their technology specialists offers unique insights into the complex linkages that exist between elected officials, their staffs, their institution, and the constituents, individuals, and groups that seek to use communication technology to influence legislator behavior.  The Arizona legislature is an ideal candidate for this research because of the demographic heterogeneity of its members and the sometimes-controversial and far-reaching nature of the legislation it considers.  Such heterogeneity offers an increased range of qualitative and quantitative variation and more interesting results than a more homogeneous state legislature might.

This paper develops a theoretical framework that links communication technology to behavior of elected officials.  This research is important for a number of reasons:  First, it offers both quantitative and qualitative evidence that a legislator’s constituent and peer response behaviors vary as a function of communication technology. Second, contrary to much of the current literature, it suggests that the motivation for an elected official to act on information received can be increased or decreased by the communication technology chosen, and that richer communication technologies do not always produce the highest levels of legislator motivation.  Lastly, it uncovers an array of diverse factors that legislators weigh deciding whether or not to utilize a new communication technology.

In today’s information environment where legislators are increasingly time constrained (Oleszek, 2011) and where mature communication technology such as phone and face-to-face conversations increasingly fight for legislator attention with newer communication technology such as the World Wide Web, Twitter™, and Facebook™, it is increasingly important to understand how communication technology influences legislator behavior.  This understanding may lead legislators, public administrators, and constituents to choose communication strategies that decrease information ambiguity while at the same time increasing the probability of desired legislator action.