Examining response engagement in online interactions between US government agencies and citizens

Jiun Yi Tsai, Janice Sweeter, Elizabeth Candello

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Purpose: Email communication is indispensable for US state agencies to respond to citizen requests and engage with constituents, contributing to building trust in local governments. While prior studies examine the responsiveness of elected officials, the quality of virtual interactions between government organizations and citizens is often overlooked. This study aims to investigate how US government agencies capitalize on the potential of online interactions with constituents to manage generic queries and introduce the response engagement index (REI) consisting of response time, reactive transparency and message interactivity to evaluate levels of communicative engagement. Design/methodology/approach: The authors conducted a field experiment encompassing emailing a request to 547 state agencies based in the five largest states and one small state. A total of 377 organizational responses were manually analyzed to reveal the usages of six communicative engagement strategies. Findings: The results show the potential of online communication is underutilized as the average score of response engagement remains low. Human responses are less engaging than auto-reply messages and require a one-day waiting period, if not longer. Response types and gender of government communicators significantly differ in response time and engagement strategies. The findings identify divergent patterns of response engagement and provide practical implications for facilitating citizen engagement. Research limitations/implications: This research fills a critical gap by investigating the quality of online interactions between US government agencies and citizens. The authors develop a theory-grounded tool of response engagement to identify three features: response speed, reactive transparency and interactivity. The findings can improve the quality of email communication in state agencies, enhancing governance quality. The REI proposed here addresses what Pfau (2008) deemed problematic for communication scholarship: research is sparse on “functional issues” that examine the communication process. Pfau argued for research that provides knowledge of interest across disciplines so as to “cross-fertilize” ideas between political communication and public relations; this study sought to bridge that gap with a theoretical and practical tool for building public trust in governments. Practical implications: To support the evaluation of transparent and responsive governments, reliable and valid measurements are needed. The proposed REI provides practitioners with a theory-grounded tool to identify areas of engagement quality in government responses. The findings can be used to improve the quality of email communication in state agencies, enhancing governance quality. Social implications: Citizens seek reciprocal dialogue through prompt, open and interactive communication. US state agencies should leverage the engagement features for increasing citizen trust – response time, reactive transparency and interactivity – when responding to public inquiries. Ultimately, trust in government agencies' interests in serving stakeholders cannot be strengthened without prompt and engaging responses to meet the public's needs. Originality/value: This field experiment was one of the first to focus on US state agencies' responses to information requests. It introduces a new REI to assess communicative engagement in a government/citizen exchange.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-17
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Communication Management
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 23 2022


  • Chronemics
  • Computer-mediated communication
  • Government–citizen communication
  • Interactivity
  • Transparency in government

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • Strategy and Management


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