Presented at the symposium of the Public Administration Theory Network, Sydney July 1999 

Karin Geiselhart, [then] PhD Candidate, University of Canberra, Australia

Repluralising the policy process: complexity theory and democratic process


There is much awareness of the complex environment of today’s public administration, and the impacts of globalisation on the nation state. Writings on public sector reform have highlighted the pressures for greater accountability and transparency, while noting that these reforms have not always had these desired effects. Rather, there have been some negative impacts on the democratic process, if measured in outcomes which reflect overall distribution of wealth and equity within and across societies. In a separate sphere, discussion about the emerging information society tends to assume the triumph of globalism and self-regulated markets. The intersection of these discourses, namely the role of new information technologies in processes of democratic governance, has received far less attention. One key study looked at the this issue in OECD countries and found that new technologies have not had much impact on the policy process, although they have contributed to the dispersion of information (Gualtieri 1998). Studies of computerisation in government have focussed on the instrumental outcomes, namely efficiency of information provision and service delivery. The developmental potential, or the capacity of these new interactive systems to facilitate participation, transparency, and accountability in policy processes, has been largely overlooked. Much of the literature on electronic democracy has also focussed on the decision making aspects, rather than the earlier deliberative stage which reflectively considers social priorities. Further, most analyses of trends in public administration and the parallel discourses on technology and democracy have tended to focus on the middle scale. That is, national and sometimes local perspectives on these issues are seldom integrated with analyses of the emerging trans-national system or at the micro level, the literature on computer-mediated communication within organisations.

However, acknowledgment of a global system requires a perspective that embraces several orders of magnitude. The systems operating on different levels are interconnected, yet there is little theory which spans these levels. The author has been involved for several years with research addressing the question: How can the efficiencies and economies which are driving electronic commerce be best harnessed for the requirements of democratic governance? What factors affect this? The intent here is to develop a concept of electronic democracy which operates at several levels simultaneously, thereby recognising both the complexity and interdependence of today’s multi-layered governments. It attempts to establish the parameters of communication protocols that could, like the protocols of the Internet, facilitate universal participation. The well known barriers to such electronic access, and their political, social and economic basis, provides a starting point for the following discussion. Thus, a technopian approach is rejected outright. The author also posits that it is no longer possible to develop theories of governance that do not take information technology and its context into account. Just as modern genetics could not exist without computerisation, and has, to some extent, been shaped by it, so must modern governance be positioned within a technological framework.

Governments and information technology

Government, like business, has become increasingly dependent on information technology to help manage its activities. The gathering and analysis of huge flows of data are essential for the development and administration of virtually all government activities. Interactive technologies can also contribute directly to the forms of communication which underpin democratic processes: sharing information, discussing it, making collective decisions, and monitoring the outcomes. It remains an open question how the efficiencies of modern technology can best enhance democratic communication processes.

Government reforms have led to the adoption of business models, and the pursuit of lower costs has encouraged widespread computerisation of many government processes. These reforms have helped to make government more efficient but have not always made it more accountable or improved communication between citizens. These have not been the main priority for government applications of information technology. The principles guiding democratic application of information technology for citizen participation will not be identical to those appropriate for efficient service delivery. The differences may be roughly explained by the distinction between instrumental and developmental applications. Instrumental approaches allow completion of an immediate or short term task, perhaps with great efficiency. Developmental approaches foster iterative reflection on what the task should be. It is argued here that only the latter perspective is fully compatible with democratic process.

This paper focuses on the requirements of democratic policy processes as an activity specific to government. No business models exist for democratic policy formulation. This includes policy relating to information technology. This is an important task at a time when corporations are often contracted to supply and manage information technology on behalf of governments. Developmental perspectives may be seen as irrelevant or too cumbersome, if efficiency is the main focus. Because information technology is nowhere a local industry, it is necessary to look at the broadest level influencing the design and distribution of information technology. This is, of course, the global level. Governments, however, exist at multiple levels, each using information technology according to their needs, resources, and abilities. Enterprises which require relationships of power and authority over the group may also be described as exercising a form of government. This brings an obligation to ask how that government should be structured (Dahl 1989:329).

While the focus of the case study for this research has been on the organisational level, it is proposed that the communication protocols which are necessary to reinvigorate democracy in a global, information age might apply at any scale. Further, these scales are related. Emerging forms of defacto global governance seem to be evident in such institutions and initiatives as the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and the temporarily abandoned (and mutated) Multilateral Agreement on Investment. Open debate about the reporting and accountability mechanisms of these institutions, including the role of communication technology in these structures, is a necessary prerequisite to their democratisation. If the fractal metaphor proposed below has predictive or analytical value, then lessons learned at the organisational level have implications for wider scales. The absence of such deliberations at the policy level on the role of information technology in emerging forms of governance is an important lacuna in public administration theory.

Complexity theory offers insights which can illuminate these issues. Sometimes known through the sub-set of ‘chaos’, the wider study of complex systems and nonlinear dynamics has increasingly been applied to the social, as well as the physical sciences. Previous systemic approaches to human and economic activities include Senge (1992), who emphasised the need for reflective learning based on an understanding of feedback patterns as part of adaptive processes.

The discussion below offers an approach to governance in an information age that considers complexity theory as (at least) a metaphorical basis for a model of electronic democracy. The mathematical extension of complexity theory to model public sector data, as provided in the work of Kiel (1994), will not be pursued here, but is proposed as an avenue for further research. Rather, this discussion suggests that information technology has the potential to repluralise democratic policy, through its capacity to provide low cost information, deliberation, transparency and evaluation: all essential elements of democratic processes. In the model offered here, these processes are constrained by the values of the dominant actors. Enactment of the necessary communication protocols is therefore a political, rather than a technical task. The writer sets out dichotomous values towards information, the democratic and the globalising. Variations lie between these extremes, and the patterns they give rise to can be analysed in terms of information outcomes. There is, therefore, a rough predictability of patterns. The nature of the nonlinear systems means full determinism of specific outcomes is not possible.

The contribution of the current approach is an analysis of communication process across scales. It provides a fractal metaphor which highlights the importance of micro actors at every level. Values supporting democratic communication protocols at one level impact on all others to shape behavioural ‘attractors’. For public administration in particular, this leads to a discussion of industrial democracy within public sector agencies. The major case study conducted in relation to these hypotheses was a two year analysis of internal policy processes in Australia’s Department of Finance and Administration. There, the use of computerised systems to automate and regulate internal decision making was found to be heavily influenced by the globalising values of the dominant actors. The case study documented the internal culture shift within this agency, and the implications for wider democratic process. The theory proposed is intended to be both diagnostic and prescriptive. It suggests that the establishment of democratic communication protocols at any point in the system can facilitate stabilising patterns. The chaotic forms of communication which characterise democratic processes are related to the complex learning which occurs in adaptive systems. The emphasis on the role of values as drivers for the system also precludes a purely technocratic approach to problems of scale in democratic process.

The following sections provide a more detailed basis for the complexity model of information technology in democratic policy processes. First, the generic concepts of democracy and policy are presented in forms which are independent of scale. These are shown to be essentially communication processes, subject to both formal and informal protocols. Then, a brief analysis of how information technology is being used at three scales is used to support the fractal metaphor. These scales, or orders of magnitude, are the global, the national, and the organisational. Other levels may be extrapolated from these. Finally, the evidence from a two year qualitative case study in the Australian Department of Finance and Administration is presented. This data on the use of computer mediated communication in internal decision making illustrates the dichotomous approaches to information and communication which also characterise the emerging global system.

Dahl’s definition of democracy

First, the concept of democracy is drawn from Dahl: ‘a unique process of making collective and binding decisions’ (1989:5). A necessary assumption is his Strong Principle of Equality: all the members of the association are adequately qualified to participate on an equal footing with the others in the process of governing the association (Dahl 1989:31). His criteria for democratic process could apply to associations at any level: effective participation, voting equality at the decisive stage, enlightened understanding, and control of the agenda. Five other aspects of Dahl’s analysis are also relevant: his recognition that scale or size is a challenge for democracy; the dangers of control by intellectual elites; the role of democracy at the organisational level; the increasing power of trans-national corporate activities; and the potential of information technology to assist a modern transformation of democracy.

Democratic transformations and problems of scale

Dahl described the mechanisms necessary to satisfy the criteria for democratic process on the scale of the nation state. These included elected officials, institutions necessary to satisfy include free and fair elections, inclusive suffrage, the right to run for office, voting equality, effective participation, enlightened understanding, control of the agenda, and inclusion freedom of expression, alternative information, and rights of association (Dahl 1989:220, 222). These all require technical support and the involvement of specialists. In principle, a form of these institutions and rights could also apply within organisations. The effectiveness of this model is now compromised by the scope and complexity of issues which often transcend national borders (Dahl 1989). These challenges to pluralism are also the familiar challenges of globalisation, including the difficulties of participation and consensus building in diverse mass societies: ‘the proliferation of transnational activities and decisions reduces the capacity of the citizens of a country to exercise control over matters vitally important to them by means of their national government.’ (Dahl 1989:319)

Dahl believed that inequalities in knowledge pose a greater threat to democracy than inequalities of resources or problems of trans-border influence (Dahl 1989:333). He was particularly concerned with the public policy specialists who tend to be privileged and detached from the control of the demos (Dahl 1989:333-5). Dahl saw the democratisation of the workplace and democratic uses of information technology (which he called telecommunications) as essential for a transformation of democracy appropriate for our age which would also address the problem of elites. Writing before the rise of the Internet as a major communication channel, he saw that it was technically possible to make appropriate information about the political agenda easily and universally accessible to all citizens and to make it possible for citizens to place questions on agenda, and participate in discussions with experts, policymakers, and fellow citizens.

Other writers have indicated the need for a reinvigoration of democracy at the local and workplace levels, and the role of the media in entrenching a market ideology, notably the contributors to Hirst and Khilnani (1996). In that volume Wright noted that the private governance of corporations should not be divorced from the public governance of states, and mentioned online information flows as one of the avenues aimed at enhancing those democratic components of representation, accountability, participation, and openness. The issues of unaccountable elites, the inadequacy of 18th century institutions for a complex globalised world and the need to harness new technologies for democratic ends may be seen as challenges to maintaining sufficient pluralism or diversity in the democratic system.

Considine’s network-actor model of public policy

This model has been chosen for its generality, and also because of the emphasis placed on values, participation, policy as innovation and communication, and the developmental aspect of policy making. Considine’s definition of policy is applicable to any level of organisation, by deleting the word ‘public’: ‘the continuing work done by groups of policy actors who use available public institutions to articulate and express the things they value’ (1994:4). This emphasises all communications between actors along the way to major decision points and commitments. At any level of structure, analysis of the policy actors, their values, and their mechanisms of accountability will aid understanding. The interest here is on how groups of actors influence the policies on uses of information technology in governance, and how this fits a democratic framework.

The primacy of values in Considine’s model of public policy

Considine, like Dahl, assumed a framework of legitimacy, values and rights. His actor networks lie between institutional power and individual citizens, and arise from key social groups such as parties, corporations, unions, professions, and citizens, with patterns of interdependence between them. They work through complex and changing alliances to influence outcomes towards their preferred values. Considine recognised dual aspects of policy making. It always has a material, instrumental, output oriented side. Beyond that, there is a developmental or intellectual side, where process is also an outcome, and a site of continual struggle between groups of actors and their values (1994:130). Although Considine did not consider the role of technology in these processes, this dual analysis resembles closely Zuboff’s (1988) ‘informating’ quality of technology. The developmental and the instrumental aspects of policy making are interrelated, not separate variables which can be tracked and modified independently. Democracy has a similar duality: protective versus developmental. Protective democracy deals with issues having practical or immediate import, and corresponds to the instrumental aspect of policy, whereas developmental democracy has longer term implications for citizens’ ability to shape their political environment. It is also a condition for learning, and involves awareness of being both subject and object of governance, through what have been called ‘reflective’ rights (Habermas 1992).

This duality is a central concept for the current discussion. When governments consider information technology, instrumental values such as efficiency and accuracy, cost-effectiveness and elimination of unnecessary duplication are undeniably important. At the same time, the communication and interactivity dimension of information technology has implications for participation in the policy process that reflectively determines its uses. For Considine, ‘values explain policy and invest all its ordinary practices with meaning.’ Values are ‘titanic and ubiquitous’ (1994:48-49). Ubiquitous features are often ignored, or accepted as unchallenged assumptions.

Considine also saw participation as a primary structure for all policy development and implementation, as it facilitates rational deliberation, creates and communicates moral principles, and expresses personal and group affects and needs. Participation can generate the social capital from which ‘all central democratic objectives spring, including legitimacy, co-operation and innovation’ (1994:130). The benefits of participation were described as not just improved outcomes (instrumental value), but developmental values, including improvements in the capacity of the system or community, through better knowledge, understanding, solidarity, trust and sympathy (1994:130- 131).

Considine saw public policy as a process of innovation and learning, and a form of communication. Actor networks are ‘knowledge communities’ which ‘rely upon lateral forms of organisation rather than traditional forms of hierarchy’ (1994:267). This model relates closely to the complex adaptive systems described below. Considine saw an urgent need for both the public and private sectors to find new forms of direct accountability to the public (1994:232) which can eliminate the ‘stovepipe’ effects of traditional hierarchical decision making (1994:263). The author incorporated these approaches to participation in several electronic democracy experiments (Geiselhart 1999a).

Implications for democratic practice

New accountability mechanisms are part of the search for new democratic protocols which complement representative structures. Decision making, power and accountability in hierarchical systems flow upwards only. Senior managers are required to both lead and devolve, while also obeying their political masters, public or private. This linear model precludes responsivity to feedback and information from below. New communication technologies, however, can create lateral communication channels that cut across traditional structures at many levels. Complexity theory helps to show how opening the system to broader inputs is adaptive, but also introduces the ‘messiness’ of democracy. Interactive technology can both contribute to and help manage this disorder.

Complexity theory in human systems

Every determinate system must change as time passes so that its structure is characterised by the lessons of its experiences, by the information it generates - not by its initial state. If change does not occur, if our bureaucratic system clings to its initial state, it will assume an immunity from error that is guaranteed to produce catastrophe (Landau, quoted in Kiel 1994:224)

Stacey’s (1996) work on complex systems and organisational dynamics reveals that organisations, and indeed, all human systems may be seen as complex adaptive nonlinear systems. That is, the relationship of the components to each other changes over time. It is not possible to assume that a particular input will always have the same output. In such systems, feedback creates important characteristics within the system. Negative feedback operates like a regulator to bring systems back to a point of equilibrium. Positive feedback amplifies and pushes a system further from stability. Time is the critical variable, as often phasing is the sole determinant of whether feedback will be amplifying or stabilising. Economic/technological examples include the emergence of the QUERTY keyboard and VHS as a standard for video machines, although neither necessarily offered the best technical solution (Waldrop 1994). In human networks, these processes are commonly understood as ‘self-fulfilling prophesies’ or ‘vicious circles’. In these nonlinear systems innovation and creativity can occur at the ‘edge of chaos’, or when instability threatens collapse of the system. This is also where complex, adaptive or ‘double loop’ learning occurs, or where a system shifts into a new state of stability. Such systems are inherently unpredictable, but their instability tends to be ‘bounded’ or operate within limits. This inherent unpredictability offers a complete change from the Newtonian, linear and predictable world which was the basis for Weberian clock-work bureaucracies (Kiel 1994:12). One implication is that such systems are not subject to managerial control. Management has a different role in such situations, which are the norm in today’s unstable business and government environment. Rather than seeking stability and maintaining an illusion of predicability or control, it becomes more important to encourage the diversity and self-organisation which will provide creative adaptive solutions. This tends to happen most productively in the ‘shadow culture’ of informal interactions immune to regulation (Stacey 1996). Values are critical influences on the evolution of such systems.

Nonlinear systems are also extremely sensitive to minute changes in initial conditions. That is, a subtle difference in a single parameter can lead to totally divergent outcomes. Paradoxically, nonlinear systems also regulate themselves by tending to return to their basic pattern of behaviour when disturbed. This mode locking has been an important discovery of complexity theory in physiological systems (Gleick 1988:292-3), and has parallels in, for example, bureaucratic systems that resist change. Interactive systems, such as computer-mediated communication, are also feedback systems: they can create surprises, even while showing identifiable patterns. Complexity theory shows that rather than suppressing the resulting disorder and instability as undesirable risks, these processes can be accepted as inherent in all forms of evolution, adaptation and renewal. In this sense, the ‘messiness’ of democracy is not only ‘natural’, but important for survival at every level of human systems, including the organisational.

The patterns which emerge in nonlinear systems are called ‘attractors’, because the system is ‘attracted’ to this state. They have also been described as ‘the deep order in work’ (Kiel 1994:103), because they fall within limiting boundaries. These patterns are determined by the system, but are not predictable in detail, any more than one can predict exactly what a day at the office will be like, although most people can safely assume it will not include a visiting circus. [Figure 1: picture of an attractor developed from data in a public sector agency]

Figure 1 An attractor derived from the number of trouble tickets completed on a daily basis for a calendar year (Kiel 1996:111) There is a bifurcation in this pattern, with two minor loops. It is also evident that the data are not random, but fall within clear limiting borders.

These attractors provide the emergent properties of the system, not deducible from the components alone. Thus, highly interactive computerised systems may produce patterns which satisfy the criteria for democratic process, but not necessarily. Unlike physical systems, human systems are subject to ethical influences. Discovery of how these impact on the complex relationships created by information technology and human structures for governance would have both predictive and practical applications.

Another important concept from complexity theory is fractal patterns. These are self-similar patterns which repeat at different scales, and they abound in the nonlinear systems of the natural world [Figure 2]. There is some evidence of fractal patterns in the ways information technology interacts with human systems at different levels of structure. For example, the productivity paradox, whereby investments in technology do not equate with productivity increases, occurs at macro and micro levels (Preissl 1997). Others have noted that government programs and hierarchies tend to produce systems where ‘any one piece looks just like the rest’ (Mintzberg 1996) and ‘policy and program responses tend to look and feel the same across a range of portfolios’ (Heimler 1996). It is argued here that fractal patterns in human systems can also occur over time, as with the transformations in the scale of democracy described above. Complexity theory has shown that extremely intricate patterns can be generated from very simple equations. Part of the excitement generated by complexity theory was the recognition that the same patterns and equations appeared in completely different areas of study. Fluid dynamics obey the same laws as irregular heartbeats. An equivalent deep order may exist in human systems and uses of information technology.

Figure 2 The fractal branching patterns of the circulatory system (Briggs 1992:127)

Kiel (1994) provided a rare analysis of complexity in government. He saw the nonlinear dynamic as a true paradigm shift, away from Weberian, hierarchical models. In this new paradigm, disorder and even bounded instability is an opportunity, rather than a threat (p. 15). He suggested the possibility of renewal through transformation, but only if risks are encouraged. These are not the wild and reckless risks of the anarchic, but rather those necessary to explore new possibilities. He said freedom is more important than control (p. 205), and process is more important than structure (p. 209). Kiel’s assertion that highly energised organisations are more responsive to change (p. 213) has implications for public sector agencies which have experienced increasing enervation in recent years. He asserts that an organisation’s deepest order is found in management values (p. 218). Therefore, a commitment to service, a desire to excel, a drive to improve, and a dedication to having open organisations that let democracy flourish are essential management values in a world of increasing complexity (p. 218). In this way, public agencies can be a stabilising force in an unstable world (p. 223), supported by a new information ethic in public agencies that extends beyond the government’s fiduciary responsibility to maintaining information for citizens (p. 216). Kiel’s conclusions, supported by mapping of attractors based on work process and employee performance data, provide early indications that mathematical analysis of public sector processes can yield new ways of conceptualising and discussing these dynamic activities. Given that globalisation is challenging representative structures, and participation is essential in all forms for democratic activity, the following analysis looks at the potential for both participation and democracy within emerging structures at the global, national and organisational levels.

Current trends shaping the global information system

The facts of ownership, production, distribution and convergence make computer technology and its associated streams of telecommunications and media the archetypes of globalisation. They are intimately concerned with all forms of information exchange and increasingly, it is argued, the public platforms which shape discourse. The consideration of information technology has become an important area for the analysis of democratic process at every level of social organisation. The following overview of trends in media and public relations will focus on their systemic democratic impacts and the actors and values which shape these developments.

Preissl (1997) said the economic forces influencing information technology tend towards centralised control. She described a lack of democracy in the decision making for the regulatory frameworks for IT, and a failure to examine the power relations in the impact of IT on the workforce. Commodification of information is increased, affecting citizen access to information, and trans-national issues such as copyright, privacy and fraud control illustrate the limits of existing democratic mechanisms. She saw the ambivalence of IT and the massive business interests which are at stake. In calling for more data on social impacts, she noted that the European Community plan for the information society dedicates only a small fraction of its funds to studies of the social consequences.

Haywood (1995) discussed the increasing globalisation of the information and media industries from a librarian’s perspective. He saw information as a public good, possibly as a ‘fourth right of citizenship’ after food, clothing and housing. He also saw threats to democratic process in the tenuous line between advertising and editorial content, the portrayal of diverse opinions as dangerous dissidence and the hidden long-term costs which a relentless pursuit of people-less efficiency creates as part of this corporatisation process (Haywood 1995:84, 95, 211, 213).

Birrer (1997) said the emerging information society shows many characteristics of a self-organising process. The unpredictability of such systems means they are not capable of overt control; rather the underlying system dynamics must be examined to create democratic outcomes. He identified these as globilisation, decentralisation and deregulation. These trends encourage risk avoidance, which he described as an aspect of the prisoner’s dilemma or the tragedy of the commons: both are off-load problems. The tragedy of the commons, initially formulated in relation to environmental issues, is a systemic process whereby individuals maximise their short term personal gain at the expense of longer term viability of the resource being exploited. For example, junk email reduces the sender’s personal risk, while passing the problem to the receiver. On a wide scale, Birrer said liberalisation and deregulation promote these forms of behaviour in policy makers seeking to avoid personal risk by simply facilitating other people’s negotiations. Birrer maintained that these behaviours dominate information society policies, with vague rhetoric, often insufficient study of events and alternative paths, and inadequate concrete goals.

A similar complexity perspective was presented by Hearn, Mandeville and Anthony (1998). Their analysis also considered the ‘communication superhighway’ as a self-organising system, and outlined the steps that must be taken to ensure adequate participation in shaping its future in Australia. There was an implicit recognition of fractal patterns in their analysis, as they argued that ‘the overall impact of the communication superhighway on work and organisations parallels the email case’ (Hearn, Mandeville and Anthony 1998:103).

Herman and McChesney (1997) set out to identify the role of the media in the creation of a public sphere. While acknowledging some positive effects of media globalisation, such as the dissemination of popular culture, Herman and McChesney believed the primary effect of globalisation is not beneficial. One major effect is the ‘implantation of the commercial model of communication’ and the creation of a culture of entertainment that is ‘incompatible with a democratic order.’ This tailoring of commodified media outputs serves market ends rather than the needs of citizenship (Herman and McChesney 1997:8-9). The emphasis on programming with low political content, such as soap operas, sports, and animated features, conditions the audience into unquestioning passivity. They outlined how economies of scale progressively minimise local or regional input, and the global fare is served up without any indication of true alternatives.

They said accelerated concentration of global media ownership allows it to increasingly shape the direction and content of national media, and therefore citizen information, in much of the world. Loose cartels dominated by about 10 mostly US transnational corporations form an indispensable component of the globalising market economy. Herman and McChesney also described the structural flaws that limit this system’s service to democracy. These negative outcomes include minimal public participation, erosion of the public sphere, avoidance of controversy, and the creation of a narrow business elite (Herman and McChesney 1997:189). The core beliefs of the globalising forces were given as: the market allocates resources efficiently and provides the most important means of organising economic (and perhaps all human) life; government intervention and regulation tend to impose unreasonable burdens on business that impede economic growth; the proper objective of economic policy should be sustainable economic growth; and the need for extensive privitisation and deregulation to achieve this (Herman and McChesney 1997:35-36). The effects of this global catechism on participation and democracy can not be easily overcome, largely because the audience’s ability to frame a critical view is limited and shaped by the information available through the media. The result is acceptance of a market economy as the only alternative, and a downgrading of civic virtues (Herman and McChensey 1997:194). The accompanying homogenisation of culture and discussion through a vast mainstream reinforce western hegemony, rather than local diversity.

Their analysis of the convergent global media parallels other analyses of globalisation more generally. For example, Martin and Schumann (1997) focus on the social outcomes and conclude that a narrow economic framework dominates at the expense of longer term sustainablity. Both approaches agree that current trends tend to diminish democratic process.

Public relations and public disinformation

The impact of globalisation on democratic communication processes is perhaps most evident in the activities of trans-national public relations firms. An Australian quotation sets the tone:

The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy (Carey 1995:18).

Sophisticated approaches to the manipulation of public opinion rely heavily on technology: telephone patch-throughs direct to politician’s offices, video press releases delivered precisely where and when they are needed, and databases on journalists’ preferences and deadlines, to facilitate targeting them for influence (Stauber and Rampton 1995). They found the values which increasingly dominate public debate are corporate values, which are often contemptuous of democracy. They did not see democracy functioning well either within government or within the corporations they criticised. Beder (1997) focussed on the environment, the ways corporations misinform and undermine public deliberation about it, and how these efforts erode the institutions of democracy. Her list of complaints included: of lack of diversity in news reporting, control of media outlets by corporate interests which are not concerned with negative environmental impacts, and political agenda setting by massive investments in public relations campaigns. The effects are not just in immediate destruction of environmental resources, but in the shifting of values towards a less responsible and more solipsistic society. She described how Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPP suits, further inhibit responsible debate on important civic issues. Carey (1995) also provided evidence of direct corporate intervention in public policy, and the compliance of government in this project. Carey believed these efforts have been largely successful in portraying community and public oriented policies as a ‘risk to democracy’ because they hamper free enterprise.

Overall, the above review shows that globalisation, which has media and communication activities as a key components, has evolved in ways which favour instrumental, economic patterns. They run counter to the forms of information sharing that foster democratic participation, often through the omission of transparency or accountability.

Implications for global governance

Financial structures are another important component of the global system. Financial markets and transactions wield enormous power over national governments, through their vast hidden exchanges which take place with the speed of light. This was vividly described by Martin and Schumann (1997) and Brown (1998). The concealed world of financial governance undermines democracy through its opacity and sheer magnitude, which dwarfs that of the real economy (Bell 1997). New formal structures for governance are not necessarily providing the new forms of democracy that would address these globalisation issues. The European Union may be considered an experiment in trans-national governance. Several writers have expressed concern about a ‘democratic deficit’ in the way in which the European Union is progressing, and the need for to develop democratic openness in its policy making (Habermas 1992). Betten (1998) said there is not yet a Europe of citizens, because the right to information of the European Council, while a condition sine qua non for participation in decision making, does not guarantee a more democratic or participatory form of law making. Only in the area of social policy is there evidence of real participation in the law making process by a range of social partners. Betten noted that meetings of the European Council are closed to the public, limiting accountability.

Thus, the dominant actors controlling the uses of information technology in the emerging information society favour structures which minimise participation and transparency, and maximise centralised control. The next section shows that these values also shape national uses of information technology.

Public sector reform and information technology

Information technology has been an important focus for public sector reform, both for the instrumental collection and processing of information and for the government’s developmental obligations to promote participation by an informed citizenry. A client focus has vastly increased the amount of information available to the public. The pursuit of cost-effectiveness has also encouraged electronic access. Pressures for the commodification of information create inevitable trade-offs between equity and efficiency. The dangers of this for an informed citizenry are well documented (Reinecke 1989, Haywood 1995, Branscomb 1994, Preissl 1997). Democratic participation requires much more than access to raw information. The ability for discussion and debate about the interpretations of the information are arguably an essential part of citizen information in an increasingly complex world decision making environment. At every stage of the policy process: initiation, development and evaluation, information is a key ingredient. The role of intermediary institutions, such as libraries and public broadcasters, is now also caught up in the convergence of technologies. Outsourcing of information technology adds an extra dimension of public accountability.

In the past decade the rise of interactive technologies has led researchers to consider the Internet as a public sphere (Fang 1995). There has, however, been surprisingly little analysis or evaluation of information technology applications aimed at citizen-government communication. A brief survey of some key Australian policy documents relating to national uses of information technology revealed increasing reliance on global actors for guidance, with fears voiced that Australia will be left behind if it does not comply. Industry players, such as the Information Industries of Australia, encourage a view of information technology as an engine for growth. Voices of groups representing social welfare or the environment are not major actors in direction setting for the information economy. The orientation emphasises efficiency and the self-organisation of the market, rather than proposing active use of the technology to ensure that social goals are articulated and achieved. The trend, on both national and state levels, towards an economic approach to the development of the information technology infrastructure reflects consistency with other aspects of public sector reform. There is an emphasis on instrumental approaches, such as better service delivery and cost effectiveness.

A study of the contribution of new technologies to policy processes in OECD countries (Gualtieri 1998) showed that their role was minor, and mostly limited to the information gathering and disseminating aspects of policy development, rather than broadening the basis and quality of deliberation. Even so, many government initiatives have made successful use of interactive technologies for developing government policy. One example is the online consultations in the United Kingdom, which invited broad participation over the Internet for the development of a national policy on freedom of information. Within Australia, it is now common for draft policy documents to be available on the Internet. It is less common for all submissions to be made transparently available to all others electronically, although this practice is increasing. In general, a form of weak interactivity operates, which is little more than the translation into a new media of previous methods. Pre-Internet, hard copies of voluminous submissions would be sent to all participants in a consultation process. Electronic availability is an improvement, provided access issues are addressed. Agenda setting for the scope of a draft policy normally occurs at an earlier, non-public stage, with limited input from a select group of stakeholders. Along with access, this limits the ability of communication technologies to democratise the policy process. Government sponsored programs featuring full interactivity remain rare or have tenuous funding, as with Australia’s Cultural Network. The general pattern of electronic interactivity supports many of the previous hypotheses: they favour instrumental applications of interactive technology, and reflect the values of the dominant actors. Although alternatives appear, overall the values are those of globalisation, and result in technology use which emphasises elite inputs and minimises broader participation in policy processes. This perspective is supported by the literature on electronic government (Hernon and McClure 1993, Fletcher and Foy 1994).

Work on economic modelling in Danish local government revealed that computer models shape the analytic framework of the policy debate, the criteria for choice, the extent to which decisions will be binding on the participants, and the range of alternatives for negotiation and compromise (Andersen 1995). Modelling can become institutionalised and favour the elites who manage the technology. Andersen suggested that modellers become political actors who use broad communication and mediation skills to resolve conflicts among politicians, bureaucrats, and technical experts. In a study of the democratic implications of information technology outsourcing in the United Kingdom (Margetts 1996) revealed how a few global corporations have moved into the space created by a fragmented government approach. Because ‘the core’s hold over the new style government is tenuous’, corporate interests can gain greater power and become strategic actors. She used a familiar metaphor: ‘the organisations which develop and control the new nervous system of government are growing larger’, and described how a handful of global players were assuming a greater role in the policies and functions of government agencies.

Overall, at the level of the nation state, the patterns for the use of information technology are instrumental, and oriented at service delivery. A cursory survey of Australian information technology documents reveals similar patterns, with minimal attention to the need to foster participation or enhance accountability (Geiselhart 1999).

Computer mediated communication in organisations

Concepts of industrial democracy have a long history. In recent decades hierarchical theories of management have given way to network or systems approaches, appropriate to a globalised corporate environment, and much assisted by technology. Dahl’s (1989) concern with problems of scale in democratic process led him to recognise a strong link between internal organisational processes and wider democratic structures. Given the centrality of work in most people’s lives, with acknowledged effects on health, wealth, status, leisure, and many other values, Dahl posed a basic question: how could citizens in an advanced democratic country not be concerned with the internal government of firms? (1989:327). He observed that numerous efforts to democratise the workplace have failed, partly because the favourable conditions, such as freedom of speech and training in the requisite processes do not arise spontaneously. He said the principle of strong equality should also apply to enterprises, as in any situation where relations of power and authority are at stake. Dahl’s interest in workplace democracy was both protective, or instrumental, and developmental. It was seen as important for employees’ immediate well-being, but also for the training in governance it provides to corporate citizens, a perspective shared by Pateman (1970).

As with government uses of the Internet, there can be weak interactivity and participation in organisations. Government agency plans for industrial democracy usually take this form. Arguments made against workplace democracy often are the same as those voiced against broader democratic process (Dahl 1989:329), and representative structures may be considered cumbersome or time consuming. Sclove (1995) presented a strong case for the integration of democratic process in the key social domains of formal politics, community, and work (Sclove 1995:44). He argued that without democratic process to integrate these spheres, each diminishes the other, rather than contributing to a functioning whole.

Industrial democracy and its opposite

Lester (1998) reflected on systemic trends at a global level. He argued for a ‘new economic citizenship’ based partly on the strategies of some enduringly successful companies. There were echoes of Kanter’s belief in business providing social leadership, but with a more explicit acknowledgment that all is not well in society. The context was job insecurity and growing inequality. Thus, he acknowledged the instability of the system. He studied a few diverse companies united only by their commitment to a ‘sense of purpose beyond profit’ which guided them through difficult times. These were manifested in generous benefits to employees, or by rejecting foreign opportunities with bad human rights implications. These internal values were well understood and infused all areas of activity. Lester found authentic values were more important than other widely accepted success factors. He almost acknowledged a fractal pattern, by noting that the employees of a company are not so different from citizens of a country, and that discussions of national direction and purpose will become more important, as will calls for regulation of corporate behaviour, as pressures of migration from swelling populations increase in the next few decades. He called for deliberation to create a coherent vision of what kind of growth is desirable, rather than just how it can be attained. That is, he advocated a reflective approach. Rights and responsibilities in new work relationships need to be established, and employees will have to be part of this dialogue. He said technology has a Jekyl and Hyde potential, and should be shaped to give workers dignity and control over their working environment, leading to a healthy relationship between industry and society. In terms of the current analysis, Lester indirectly said the system within the workplace is inseparable from the wider systems it contributes to. By recommending reflection on the wider role of the corporation in society, he acknowledged the importance of participation in both process and policy. At the level of analysis and action he proposed, artificial boundaries between instrumental and developmental approaches vanish. This level is where strong democracy emerges.

Probably the most dramatic example of successful corporate democracy was provided by Semler, who implemented initiatives based on participation and involvement in his Brazilian company. By adjusting and learning from conflicts and failures he established principles and procedures unheard of in most organisations. Worker selection of managers, circular structure, self-determination of salaries for executives, redesign of tasks by work teams, substitution of common sense for rules, full financial transparency, trust in workers’ decisions, zero tolerance for corruption, on the job sabbaticals and job rotation, a special program for women, anonymous upwards assessment: he claimed all of these worked. Semler believed democracy is hard work that can only develop with conviction and without subterfuge or exception. It begins with little things like choice of clothing, unlabelled parking spaces and throwing away time clocks (Semler 1994:71). He also dealt with problems of scale in his democratic experiment, and broke up business units when their size precluded all members understanding and contributing to decisions. He consciously set out to create an ‘amoeba like’ process of self-replication. The adventurousness of this enterprise was breathtaking, given Brazil’s highly volatile industrial and political situation. The flow on effects within Brazil, and eventually the influence on other corporations, including an environmental consulting firm, would be difficult to quantify.

Several writers considered the extreme alternatives to democracy in the workplace, which they labelled ‘totalitarian’, ‘narcissistic’ (Schwartz 1990) or ‘self-defeating’ (Hardy and Schwartz 1996). The underlying processes were similar, and were based on reinforcement of counter-productive actions. In complexity terms, positive feedback loops destabilised to the point of collapse. For Schwartz, organisational totalitarianism occurred when the leadership's understanding of their own actions is proclaimed to be the organisational ideal; the organisation's power then imposed this as the ego ideal on other organisational members. This involved acquiescing to the perfection of some specific others as one's own moral obligation. These behaviours created a cascade of events where features of the totalitarian life, such as slavishness and passivity, uncertainty about what is appropriate, and isolation of people, were acted out in a drama whose theme was the perfection of the powerful. Productive work became less important than maintaining the narcissistic fantasy.

Schwartz’s analysis, based on evidence from such notable failures as the much-studied Challenger space shuttle disaster and General Motors, explored why committed organisational participants sometimes engage in morally reprehensible actions. He said the answer lay in the way the organisation influences the individual's moral orientation toward the world, and hence voluntary social action (Schwartz 1990: 24-31). He said a work organisation can form its own moral community, which can stand in isolation from and even opposition to, the broader norms of society. At the core of this dysfunction lies a denial of reality and a commitment to fantasy. The cure was compared to that of recovery from alcoholism. This turning towards truth could not be imposed from the top, but was more likely ‘to look like a group of limited men and women, trying hard each day to reclaim, within the terrible constraints that each one faces, a little bit of the hold on reality that each one threw away’ (Schwartz 1990:104). His descriptions of conformity, lack of creativity, enervation and moral compromise are familiar to public servants in the 1990s.

The complementary analysis of Hardy and Schwartz (1996), also based on extensive work with organisations, described similar situations where a ‘collective delirium’ sets in. While they claimed morality does not play a role in the success or failure or organisations, like Schwartz, they called for organisational truth telling and an equitable distribution of costs and benefits. Their recommendations for ‘breaking the loop’ and achieving high performance (Hardy and Schwartz 1996:123) compare roughly with democratic criteria: freedom to advocate new solutions resembles agenda setting, adequate resources include access to information, and freedom from irrational fear is necessary for participation. Both Schwartz and Hardy and Schwartz recognised the intimate play between individual actors being free to assert their ideas and nominate goals, and the wider collective health and prosperity of the organisation. Their descriptions of dysfunctional behaviour and its reinforcement are the positive feedback loops described by Stacey (1996), as discussed in Chapter 1. While systemic approaches are now widespread in management theory, they are seldom integrated with concepts of democratic process and its underlying values.

The above discussion showed that while organisational participation is unavoidable, the form it takes can be narrowly and instrumentally conceived, or reach beyond the workplace to evoke wider social values. The characteristics of full participation, such as described by Semler (1994) resemble the criteria for democracy, whether they are called that or not. The behaviour patterns described by Schwartz (1990) and Hardy and Schwartz (1996) satisfy everyday notions of authoritarianism, and would probably be considered unethical in a non-organisational setting. While it is possible to have organisational participation without reference to either the concepts of democracy or the wider role of the organisation in society, the underlying values and the patterns they generate will be recognisably different from the descriptions of self-defeating and totalitarian organisations. It may be conclused that industrial democracy requires full developmental participation.

Complexity, learning and participation

The links between organisational learning and complexity theory have gradually become more apparent in the literature. Complexity concepts are increasingly being applied to management and economics. As outlined in Chapter 1, creative innovation and double-loop learning occurs at the chaotic borders of complex systems. In organisational terms, this focuses attention on the pivotal role of communication processes and the power structures that influence them. The current analysis links complex learning organisations to technology, democracy and policy via the integrating concept of values. The literature on learning organisations makes little reference to information technology or its role in organisational processes (Balasubramanian 1996). There is little evidence of cumulative knowledge or integration in the literature on organisational learning, and few research-based guidelines for practical application (Huber 1991). Specialists on information technology write about its impact on organisational structure and process as a separate domain, reflecting the fragmentation of modern life and research. Zuboff (1988) linked the informating potential of computerisation to learning, and her conclusions revealed a vision of the post-hierarchical organisation that remains remote from most workplaces. The emergent and flexible structures she described, the tolerance of non-participation from some, her call for formal mechanisms to ensure due process and equity and her recognition of the self-organising nature of the informated organisation were all consistent with a model based on complexity and behavioural attractors. The work of Feenberg (1991) and Sclove (1995) implicitly showed the role of value-based feedback in the design and longer term uses of technology. Viewed at the developmental level, these are clearly political processes.

The learning organisation in relation to the difficult tasks of continual reflection and integrated thinking is probably best known through the work of Senge (1992). He also believed business could transform society, which implies a role in governance. His exposition of the common and systemic pitfalls limiting most endeavours, personal or professional, led to avenues for producing change. Like Stacey (1996) and several writers discussed in the previous section, he referred to ‘the illusion of taking charge’ as a common failing of corporate leadership. Most simply he advocated learning to tell the truth, recognising systemic limitations as mere shadows, and developing the courage of vision based on enduring values. Such renewal was proposed as one cure for the ‘diseases’ of hierarchical organisations, which tend to focus on endless growth and material outcomes only. Certainty, as epitomised by western positivist, reductionist, linear thinking, undermined openness and learning. Senge, like Lester, came close to recognising the fractal nature of these systems, as the practices for personal mastery were seen embedded in the disciplines for building learning organisations (Senge 1992:173), with a need for ‘rapport between levels’ (Senge 1992:148). While he did not explicitly consider democratic process within organisations, the techniques he suggested, such as dialogue, openness and letting the other person choose, are fundamental to democracy as well as learning. His ‘covenant’ with employees, which commits to their personal development and continual renewal of the organisational ‘commons’ relates closely to the developmental vision espoused by Lester and Semler, and advocated in this thesis as democracy and participation. Senge also recognised the importance of leadership as design (Senge 1992:298).

Tannenbaum (1997) offered diagnostic findings on how to enhance continuous learning in companies, with fairly obvious results. Individuals learn best, and their companies are more effective, when they understand the ‘big picture’, can apply their learning quickly, can make mistakes in early stages of application, are given support by supervisors, are allowed to offer new ideas and question practices, and these factors are periodically reconsidered. These elements implied a certain degree of participation and a benign environment, at least in the instrumental activities associated with learning for company effectiveness. But these guidelines did not indicate how organisations might provide a mechanism for collective reflection on the big picture or what is being learned. Together with Senge’s emphasis on the wider system, this supports a restatement of Hypothesis 11, that learning which is effective on one level can have negative systemic impacts, when viewed from a different perspective. One common example of this is world best practice in down-sizing creating social problems through unemployment, which ultimately can feed back to the organisational level. Without a systemic perspective, such effects may be masked as a ‘productivity paradox’. Problems at one level get off-loaded to another, but eventually rebound through the prisoner’s dilemma situation.

Learning organisation concepts and information technology converge in ‘knowledge management’, an area which looks at the need to integrate and communicate knowledge by adding value to information rapidly and effectively. While not concerned overtly with empowerment, embedded in this literature are the essential requirements for openness and collaborative goal setting. Without this, it becomes oxymoronic to say that knowledge is being managed. The management of information for the creation of knowledge is related to the ability of organisations to learn (Broadbent 1997), their ability to recognise and harness implicit versus explicit knowledge (Broadbent 1997, Lamberton 1997) and the vexing issue of the productivity paradox. Increases in investment in information technology do not always lead to increases in productivity, an important area for investigation (Attewell 1996) with international dimensions (Dewar and Kraemer 1998). The position taken here is that instrumental approaches to technology use in organisations inhibit the kinds of broader participation and learning which systemic thinkers such as Senge have identified as essential for long-term success.

The essentially fractal nature of relationships between organisations and the global system was implicitly recognised by Stacey (1996), in his description of organisations as nonlinear systems which are ‘components in larger feedback networks that we call industries and markets, and these in turn are part of even larger feedback networks that we call economies, societies and nations, and they in turn are components in global feedback networks (Stacey 1996:254). One of the key contributions of complexity concepts to management theory is the formalisation of the unpredictability and interdependency of these systems. As discussed in Chapter 1, the inherent unpredictability of these systems means that neither credit, blame or even causality can be easily attributed. The manager as a controller of linear, predetermined pathways becomes an unrealistic expectation, and at its worst, Schwartz’s (1990) ‘narcissistic fantasy’. Stacey maintained that the organisation adapts through self-organisation, influenced sub-consciously by ‘constraints’. The researcher proposes that values in human systems act as regulators. These shape the possible patterns for the emergent behaviour. An organisation may become badly dysfunctional and undermine core beliefs, but patterns of response exclude, for example, assassination. Though unpredictable, these systems are deterministic. Negative feedback brings an organisation back to stability, and behaviour which suppresses feedback and learning mechanisms is dysfunctional.

Complex learning and innovation can only occur in the presence of full participation, which is determined by organisational norms. These, in turn, are embodied in the organisational approach to information management and technology. The literature on computer mediated communication within organisations reveals similar patterns to those identified on the global and national levels. Computerisation tends to support the existing hierarchy and social systems, through instrumental applications that often overlook the importance of human networks.

Wang (1997) surveyed the literature on the impact of technology on organisations. His perspective was ‘business ecosystems’, or the enterprise as an integrated, flexible and adaptive organism, capable of self-restructuring, self-reshaping, and responding to a large variety of environmental perturbations. He noted the common model of a technology-enabled network based on downsizing, balancing interests and pursuing a customer driven global strategy does not address the costs of contraction, or alternative organisational forms to hierarchy. Like many others, he found that electronic groups behave like real social groups, with clear organisational effects: computer-mediated communication makes information flows more personal, reflects more distributed patterns of organisational control, engenders innovation, creativity, and collaboration, but also increases levels of disagreement or conflict; electronic networks are linked to power-knowledge relations, and can be a site of struggle over resource allocation and career advancement within management. Wang’s review showed that the major contribution of information technology to organisations is still viewed as improved efficiency through speed and quality of service, organisational boundary spanning, and coordination of the relations among organisational units, with information overload a growing problem. He said it is a myth that technology stimulates information flow and eliminates hierarchy; rather a democratic culture makes possible democratic information flows. Wang further asserted that unless the politics of information are identified and managed, companies will not move into the information age, and information will not be shared freely nor used effectively by decision makers. Computerisation can increase organisational learning, and is a fundamental variable for organisational design, although it does not change the social culture. Often computerisation is viewed as little more than another kind of new technology for improving productivity and reducing costs. Quality personnel become more volatile for the organisation and are virtually assets of the entire society. Job satisfaction and equity become important more than ever for organisations to achieve. Wang thus accurately described most of the important issues of computerisation in organisations, including the need to incorporate advanced human resources principles to match advanced technology. He also correctly identified the self-limiting properties of a narrowly instrumental approach to computerisation in organisations. The contradictions between the view of IT as a tool, and as an opportunity to restructure work relationships, pervades both the literature and the reality of computer-mediated communication.

Mantovani (1994) cast aside any previous claims that computer-mediated communication was intrinsically likely to have democratising effects on organisations. His concept of communication was one of a set of actors in a patterned relationship, not unlike Considine’s (1994) actor-networks. A matrix framework was offered which was both nonlinear and applicable at the level of the individual, the group, or the organisation. In other words, it scaled up, or exhibited fractal properties, just as do the concepts of democratic and policy process used in this thesis. His exhaustive analysis of the literature led to rejection of the claim by researchers such as Sproull and Kiesler (1991) that the technical tools of computerisation could address social inequalities within organisations. The observed gaps in skills and access, sender-receiver asymmetry, weakened understanding, and overload obstacles all related to social context.

Thus, computer-mediated communication mirrors and reinforces existing power and social relationships. It does not inherently have a democratising effect on organisations. A corollary to this commonsense conclusion is: changes in power and social relationships will be reflected in the uses of technology. The author has synthesised the above analyses of information technology use at several scales to propose a set of information protocols. These dichotomous approaches to information, which have correlates in the design of structures for information technology, are presented in Figure 3. In the context of the present discussion and the values they articulate, they are characterised as ‘democratising’ or ‘globalising’.

Figure 3 Protocols for information infrastructure relating to governance



Universal access, including training

Access based on ability to pay

Transparency of information, including feedback and agenda setting, strong freedom of information provisions. All major decisions fully textualised.

Minimal transparency at all stages

Deliberate creation and maintenance of a public space for communication, protected from commercial pressures

Commercial space only for communication

Strong interactivity – open ended in time and content

Intermittent consultation (trivialised participation)

Broadest and earliest possible participation in agenda setting and policy development

Elite actors determine agenda, draft policy reflects decisions already made

Minimisation of commercial in confidence protection

Maximum commercial in confidence provisions

Freedom from direct or indirect censorship

Widespread surveillance

Maximisation of privacy protection

Privacy protection maximised for elite/corporate players only

Equity in rights of transmission

Greater provision for broadcast or downwards transmission from centre; upwards transmission minimised or expensive

Provision for lateral and anonymous communication and ballots

Lateral communication and provisions for anonymity minimised

Availability of alternative forms and sources of information

Sources, form and content of information managed from above

Provision for localised information and dialogue

Emphasis on corporate (global) issues

Mechanisms for reflective deliberation about the information system

System taken as given

Case study evidence

The theoretical position developed above evolved with and was supported by a two year qualitative case study in the Australian Department of Finance and Administration. From early 1996 to early 1998, the author observed and documented changes in the use of the internal computer system. Most than 70 informants were interviewed, many repeatedly, and more than 300 hours were spent on site. Interview data, document study and observations were supplemented by several surveys. The focus was on the ability of these systems to contribute to internal learning and participation, and the factors affecting this. The following table outlines the author’s involvement with the department:

Early 1996


late 96

Early 97

mid 97

late 97-

early 1998

new government (March)


new secretary (January)


Future of Finance project


intranet initiated


interviews and document study


bulletin board survey



Info mgmt project



knowledge networks



Change of pace

new desktop


outsourcing of IT (September)



budget policy coord group




At the start of the case study a positive atmosphere prevailed. The many dedicated and talented staff volunteered to assist the author with documents, drafting a survey, and discussion. The Future of Finance project, which had enlisted many officers to participate in working groups on such tasks as a human resource plan and the new corporate plan, reflected the enthusiasm and good will that prevailed. While recognising that many issues needed to be resolved, staff clearly indicated that they felt they were having a say in the shaping of the department. The author conducted a survey in October 1996 of the internal bulletin boards, which revealed the highest levels of use for the bulletin boards with the greatest social content [Figure 4].



Figure 4

Over time, the contributions of staff to these social capital building bulletin boards diminished, reflecting diminished participation overall in internal decision making. The author was a member of the Information Management Project Team, which briefly flourished early in 1997. Although this project had high ambitions and was informed by advanced thinking on the importance of information management as part of an adaptive, learning organisation, the project was abandoned. Instead, it was subsumed into the much narrower task of implementing a new desk top suite. Lack of support and understanding at the highest levels was the widely given reason for the collapse of this project. Likewise, the initiation of Knowledge Networks, to provide wide information sharing opportunities on specific issues, did not lead to long term improvements in communication patterns. Most of the networks had a set task to complete, and disbanded upon its completion. The network with a clear developmental focus, namely the FISHNET, or Finance Innovation Sharing Network, collapsed due to lack of time and support for its activities. The new secretary announced a shift ‘from learning to earning’, thus heralding the end of staff-driven efforts to improve communications and information management.

Events in the department were widely influenced by the imminent outsourcing of most information technology functions. The instability for staff, and the insecurity that flowed on into other areas, increased during the course of the case study. The development of a staff certified agreement during 1998 also affected the willingness and ability of staff to participate in internal development activities. The departmental leadership prided itself on promoting one of the more extreme certified agreements, which replaced the broader service-wide agreements that had provided uniform conditions and pay across the Commonwealth. While formal internal structures were established to ensure wide staff participation in formulating and negotiating this agreement, many informants maintained that the final vote was taken on essentially the same points that management had first offered. Several ‘spills’, or sudden requirement for staff to reapply for their jobs without guarantee of placement, contributed to an increasingly fearful atmosphere. One area where innovations with team structures was having a positive impact on internal participation, the budget coordination group, was unfortunately not considered a model for other areas. A survey of the open area accommodation for this group revealed strong support for the egalitarian provision of space and communication, while another survey showed similar problems with electronic overload of information and unresolved issues of information management.

During the course of the study, the intranet developed into a useful reference tool, and the new desk top suite enabled many new features, but no real advanced occurred in the ability of staff to communicate with each other, or in the transparency of departmental systems. Management level meetings remained opaque, and existing mechanisms, such as the bulletin boards, dampened in their ability to support discussion about internal issues. The secretary introduced his own bulletin board, and was said to have hired a specialist writer to promote ‘the party line’.

At the end of the case study, many staff had left voluntarily, thus removing much corporate memory at a critical time. Even officers at the executive level felt there was no opportunity for them to develop further, and that a culture of ‘cloning’ had taken over. The following poem expressed the feeling of a staff member who left after nearly 15 years of service, but embittered by recent events. It expresses the officer’s sorrow and hurt, but also an appreciation of a workplace that once supported values of comradeship and social cohesion:

Ode To Finance

Ode to finance as we once knew,

Remember the days of the typing pool.

Kay and Vick and all the girls not many left amongst us at all.

The days of Pat and McPhee are gone,

To another Family, they’ve left us behind.

Then Neil and all the boys shut shop,

Was this where the buck was gunna stop.

It happened again to the Task Force mix,

Was there hidden dirty tricks.

Big John is gone a sad day for all,

You could hear the whispers in the halls.

Then IT told it’s time to go we’re outsourcing you all you know.

The parties at xmas used to be a blast now people say you can stick it up your arse.

With CBS left they excessed them too,

No more Carl, Pam and Jimbo just to name a few.

Change is good we are all told,

But our hearts and spirits have been sold.

People don’t smile like they used to do,

Still not knowing what to do.

Some still trust and always will,

Others feel they cannot still.

Finance cries in many ways,

--Just remembering the good old days.

Overall, the instrumental approach to both technology and communications was clearly dominant, with little recognition of the value of human networks and participation. This was in keeping with the wide literature on computer mediated communication in organisations, and also with the wider analysis of the uses of information technology at government levels. Within Finance, the rumblings and discontent were quite subversive, with references to ‘totalitarian regimes’, and ‘fried food fascism’. More than one officer indicated malice against the organisation, and the potential of highly skilled staff to subvert various systems.

In January 1999, it was revealed that a fraud of $8 million dollars had been perpetrated against the department, allegedly by a contract employee. Another department found its staff were not paid on time, partly due to ‘communication problems’ with Finance over the outsourced payroll system. While the data from the case study was not extensive or conclusive, it seemed to indicate that the enactment of stringent top down protocols for communication had not benefited the agency. It can be argued that the capacity of the agency to respond to both internal and external challenges had diminished, concurrent with the suppression of internal dialogue and participation. These changes were reflected in the shift of the internal computerised systems towards globalising values. In relation to the organisation as a self-organising complex system, Finance was unable to take advantage of the diversity of views and talents available to it. The tendency of the remaining officers to ‘toe the line’ and repeat the accepted orthodoxy may present, in microcosm, the perils of a global monoculture.


The theoretical perspective presented here offers 3 extensions of complexity theory to democracy: (1) technology has the potential to repluralise democratic processes, (2) patterns in the use of IT seem to fall into fractal attractors, and (3) values drive this system, both towards democratic and non-democratic patterns. The evidence from the case study supported these views, and indicated that globalising influences were driving the uses of information technology further from democratic patterns. Implications were that the emerging patterns were likely to be stabilising, from the perspectives of public sector accountability and democratic process.


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