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For the two lowest ranking configurations, the possible disadvantages
In the case of the videophone, the potential for improve
ment over the standard phone and greater personal contact with constituents is
only weakly recognized, while strong doubts prevail about time and cost effectiveness, availability and social acceptability, and in general whether or not the videophone really offers any significant advantage at all.
Perceptions about cable television polling are on balance even less favorable. While such polling is perceived as having the potential to increase citizen participation and feedback, the overriding fear is that cable polling might be subject to abuse or bias and pose a serious threat to the role of the
congressman and the nature of the representative function in the American
political system. There is considerable sentiment that current systems for
opinion polling are adequate, or at least that cable polling is certainly not worth the risks involved.
4. Key dimensions underlying perceptions. Based on the foregoing
analysis, there appear to be several key dimensions which underlie congressional
perceptions of the potential role for emergent telecommunications. The results
suggest that the use of a particular communication channel depends on an
overall assessment by the congressman or staff person of the relative costs
and benefits (including both objective technical-economic and the much more sub
jective behavioral-political costs and benefits) when compared against
As illustrated in Figure Four, the overall assessment of emergent
telecommunications by congressmen and staff seems to reflect a weighing of perceived advantages (beneficial effects) against perceived disadvantages
Figure Four. Key Dimensions Underlying Congressional Perceptions of the Potential Role Por Emergent Telecommunications
"A substitute channel takes the place of, a complementary channel serves to fill out or complete, and a supplementary channel adds to or extends an existing channel.
**Refers to the degree of control over the channel in regard to personal involvement of the congressman and constraints on his time and/ or activity.
(detrimental effects or limitations). Key dimensions which provide a continuum
for this assessment appear to include the nature of the alternative channel
(supplementary, complementary, or substitute), the role congruency of the
channel (degree of support for or threat to the congressman's perceived role),
and the controllability of the channel (degree of control over personal involvement and constraints on time and/or activity).
Obviously other factors like financial cost, access, possible abuse,
and people problems all are important (and figure into the benefit/cost ratio for each channel), but the implication is that the three dimensions identified above (nature, role congruency, and controllability) are of the most funda
mental importance. Thus, in this interpretation, cable television has the
highest perceived usefulness because its ratio of perceived advantages to dis
advantages is most favorable. Cable television is perceived as serving to
complement or supplement the current constituent communication system, being
congruent with the congressman's perceived role, permitting a high level of
control over the member's personal involvement, and keeping constraints on his
time and/or activity to a minimum. Likewise for information retrieval.
By contrast, the videophone and cable TV polling have the lowest
perceived usefulness because the benefit/cost ratio is least favorable.
configurations are perceived as largely serving to substitute for current and
already adequate channels, posing a significant threat to the congressman's
perceived role, and offering relatively little control over the member's
personal involvement with the resultant likelihood of additional constraints on
his time and/or activity. The other emergent configurations--the teleconference and videoconference--fall somewhere in between cable television and cable TV
polling, which seem to represent the two ends of the spectrum.
In summary, most members and staff apparently do not seek radical
change in or substitutes for existing channels. But because of the importance
of constituent communication to congressmen--both as politicians and public
officialg--and continuing problems relating thereto, many have favorable perceptions of new channels which complement or supplement existing channels and meet the further criteria of role congruency and personal control.
of course, being perceived as useful is no guarantee in itself that an emergent telecommunications channel will actually be utilized. It is at this point that considerations such as technical feasibility, financial cost, possible abuse, and the wider political and policy implications come into play. This might be considered a second and third-level assessment of benefits and costs. And, to complicate matters further, these and the first-level assessment have many subjective value-laden components which vary from person to person. Not only do congressmen and staff persons differ widely among them
selves as to the potential of emergent telecommunications in various contexts,
there may well be even greater differences in other segments of society.
5. Emergent channel utilization. Analysis of the relationships
between congressional perceptions of emergent channel potential and six member
background variables indicated that only seniority is a significant variable.
For four of the six channels, members with low seniority (1-2 terms) and high seniority (7+ terms) have much more favorable perceptions than members with
medium seniority (3-6 terms). No consistent pattern emerges in the relation
ships between perceived potential and party or political philosophy, age of the member, and key participant or House leadership status.
Exploration of the relationships between perceptions and eleven district contextual variables indicated that congressmen with more favorable
perceptions tend to come from districts with a mixed degree of urbanization
(rather than primarily urban or rural) and a relatively smaller media market
size. No consistent pattern emerges for the relationships between perceptions
and district geography (region, air distance from Washington, and population density), or the level of electoral competition.
The interview data are in addition interpreted as to channel utilization, that is, which channels are typically used for what types of messages. A comparison between actual utilization of current congressional-constituent communication channels and projected utilization of emergent channels indicates that the emergent channel utilization is likely to be relatively higher for
four messages types: "Member/staff seeking constituent views," "Member/staff
responding to constituent inquiries," "constituent seeking Member/staff views,"
and "constituent expressing constituent views."
Overall, the comparison indicates that the emergent channels will
(e) provide significantly more opportunity for the exchange of views--on public issues and legislation--between congressmen and constituents, (b) provide
relatively more possibility for constituent-initiated communication (although
member-initiated channels will still predominate), (c) provide new alternatives
for the exchange of views between congressmen and small and large groups, and
(a) provide for the first time a means for the provision of public, political,
and legislative information in digital and/or visual form to constituents on
a widespread basis.