Local Governance and the local online networked public sphere:Enhancing local democracy or politics as usual?

  • Paul Hepburn

Student thesis: Phd


This study examines the potential for the Internet, or more specifically the World Wide Web, to enhance local democracy and local governance by providing a networked public sphere. It is located in post-industrial theories of social and political transformation, which see a new, uncertain and complex society emerging which may transform the political significance of the 'local'. Whilst a number of causes are identified as culpable in this process, it is the ICT revolution and the development of the Web in particular, that is seen as possessing a democratising potential that, if realised, may bring greater resilience to geographic localities. The potential of the Web to provide a new networked public sphere is based upon contested views that its topography, its hyperlinked structure, can enable the ordinary citizen's voice to be heard above those that traditionally dominate political discourse. However, there has been no attention paid to this potential being realised at a local governance level within which, this study argues, a favourable environment should exist for a local online networked public sphere to prosper. Accordingly, this prospect is empirically explored here through a case study of the use made of the Web by a variety of local civic, political and institutional actors during a 2008 local (Manchester, UK) referendum on introducing the largest traffic congestion charging scheme in the country. This research applies a distinctive mixed method approach within a conceptually defined internet mediated domain of local governance. Relational Hyperlink Analysis is used to analyse the structural significance of the captured congestion charge. This analysis uses Social Network Analysis (SNA) and an associated statistical technique, Exponential Random Graph Modelling (ERGM) to render the network visible and understandable. To further illuminate how the network was used by local civic and institutional actors involved in the referendum the research draws upon a network ethnography approach which uses SNA to identify subjects for qualitative investigation. The study offers some evidence of the Web providing 'just enough' links in this local context to suggest the structural existence of a networked public sphere. However, further evidence from the narratives and the statistical model paint an alternative picture. This suggests that, in the main, hyperlinking behaviour and use made of the network corresponds to a 'politics as usual' scenario where cliques are more likely to proliferate and powerful economic and media interests dominate online as they do offline. If the ordinary citizen's voice is to be heard in this context then there is a requirement for policy intervention to establish a trusted local networked public sphere or online civic space, independent of vested interests but linked to the local governance decision making process. In addition to this there is a requirement for greater education, particularly aimed at senior local governance policy makers, in the culture of online engagement
Date of Award31 Dec 2011
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorFrancesca Gains (Supervisor) & Andrew Russell (Supervisor)


  • online networked public sphere
  • social network analysis
  • hyperlink network analysis
  • online local governance

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