When the world has so much bandwidth that it can't use one quarter, under peak load, on 90% of the major national and international circuits, what is the significance anyway? We keep treating telecommunications as if it was a technical problem waiting technical solutions. It is not -- and it hasn't been since the mid 1980s. It is a political and economic problem. Stewart Fist, posting to Link, 28/3/97

Chapter 3 Public Sector Reform and Information Technology

3.1 Introduction

The previous chapter set out the global context in which information technology operates, and showed that the values promoted by fin de siecle global capitalism do not favour democratic forms of communication. This chapter discusses public sector reforms and how they have impacted on government applications of information technology. The particular policy focus will be Australian, with overseas examples showing the derivative nature of the Australian reforms. Analysis at the level of national policy is important, but has been overlooked in the Australian public policy literature, as noted in Chapter 1. This lacuna is important for the perspective developed in this chapter, as it will be shown that the policy makers have largely accepted an instrumental view of technology.

The pattern here will repeat that of Chapter 2. First, a broad perspective on the role of governments in providing information is presented. Section 3.3 outlines the current changes and influences determining the shape of public sector reform, and their democratic implications. This analysis is used to review a sample of Australian information technology policy documents and government technology initiatives. Section 3.5 provides an overview of the literature on information technology in government. Finally, the dominant patterns, actors and values relating to government uses of information technology will be summarised, along with their relation to the theoretical arguments developed in Chapter 1. Again, this will lead to testable hypotheses.

3.2 Governments and information

A central assertion of this thesis is the importance of government provision and management of many forms of information as a prerequisite for democratic participation and policy making. The political rights of participation and communication have been described as the core of citizenship (Habermas 1992). Governments are both producers and distributors of information, and have a role in regulating much non-government information as well. The role of computers in government is primarily record keeping, along with shaping future developments and setting standards (Rosenberg, 1997:197). The introduction of electronic commerce for government transactions introduces additional concerns about data security and privacy, due to data sharing across agencies. Information about regulatory activities has become part of the public record which citizens need to access (Rosenberg 1997). This process of collecting, organising and presenting information is, like policy formulation, an iterative process, each stage generating additional layers of information about the previous set of activities. An example illustrates this nexus between government as information gatherer and technology developer: one of first acts of the US Congress was to order a census in 1790. Similar data is now available on CD ROM (Branscomb 1994:165).

As a public affairs officer, the researcher has been involved in many government information activities. These include informing the public about entitlements, or new developments on such issues as health policy and preventative measures, awareness raising of legal and other rights and requirements to encourage compliance, consultation in formulating policy, disseminating specialist studies commissioned by government and encouraging input about government programs. Accountability issues include maintaining accurate information about the appropriateness, success, reach and cost effectiveness of the other activities. Some transparency of internal workings of government is available through mechanisms such as senate estimates and annual reports, and material about agency processes. Evaluation of government information efforts, however, often takes the form of an audit, rather than a rigorous assessment of impact.

In Australia, these government information obligations developed as part of a wider concept of the ‘ethical state’ as a vehicle of social justice and a countervailing power to the market. Central to this ideal were the concepts of equal opportunity and active citizenship. This social liberalism provided the philosophical basis for the welfare state, with free access to public libraries and galleries a defining feature (Sawer 1996). These views were consistent with a communication framework for democracy. Communication itself was also seen as a nation building activity, and public broadcasting was an important part of building Australian self-identity (Osborne and Lewis 1995). Up until the late 1980s government communication activities were aimed at promoting ‘access and equity’, as were government programs directed at the public. Funds were set aside for communicating with ethnic and minority groups, and for ensuring the opportunity to participate in policy deliberations. A diversity of voices and actors was encouraged.

Branscomb elaborated on the problems governments face with the proliferation and commodification of information. She identified at least four types of information needed by governments and their citizens: to fulfil voting obligations; to comply with legislative and judicial decisions; to be informed about environmental, welfare, medical and other developments; and to manage government effectively, for example census and economic data (Branscomb 1994:164). In meeting these requirements, governments must juggle their accountabilities to operate cost effectively, maintain maximum access, and also encourage private sector development. In the United States, federal information resources are becoming a source of income for their agencies, with a trend towards pricing information according to the public’s willingness to pay, rather than at the cost of reproduction. This has consequences for the concept of universal access (Branscomb 1994:161). Reinecke observed a shift in the approach to information provision from an Australian perspective, roughly coinciding with the rise of widespread computerisation. He saw a threat to the liberal ideal of information diffusion, as it now ‘stands squarely in the path of the continued expansion of the global information business.’ This business, which relies on packaging and marketing information, seeks to eliminate government as a distributor of information (Reinecke 1989). Thus, the forms of communication which underpin democratic process have always been related to the role of government, and more recently have involved government decisions on information technology. The next section describes the elements of public sector reform, which has transformed government’s relationship to both information management and technology.

3.3 Planning by the numbers: two decades of public sector reform

The time of the current research, 1996-1998, was one of intense change for the Australian Public Service. This was not unique to Australia, or even to western democracies. Under the heading of ‘reform’, the widespread changes in structure and functions of government since approximately 1980 represent a substantial shift in public policy. A general outline of the major direction of these changes will pave the way for a more detailed discussion of government uses of information technology.

The characteristics of public sector reform

Public sector reform is global in scope (Zifcak 1994, Peters 1996) although the elements have not been applied identically or simultaneously in all countries (Pollitt and Summa 1997, Pollitt 1997). In English speaking democracies, however, there has been a strong consistency in the direction and underlying intent of the reforms, even though their administrative detail has often been applied in contradictory ways (Peters 1996). These reforms have also been independent of the political inclination of the government at the time (Zifcak 1994:155 ). The New Zealand reforms were perhaps the most extreme of all (Kettl 1997), and were pursued by both Labor and non-Labor governments (Wallis 1997). These changes to the way government is conceptualised and functions are primarily driven by public choice or principal agent theory (Kettl 1997). These assumptions lead to a business model of government, with as many services as possible privatised, contracted out or eliminated altogether. Such measures are held to favour an enhanced client focus, with individuals considered primarily consumers of goods and services, able to make rational choices which enhance their immediate and personal well being. This increased emphasis on the economic function of citizens diminishes consideration of wider social relations. Individuals are assumed to act alone, rather than as actors in wider networks. Public servants, too, are seen to have only narrow personal interests, rather than to be capable of acting for the general good. Self (1993) related these public choice assumptions to the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’, which results when individuals pursue their interests without regard to the overall or long term effects. As described in Chapter 2 in relation to the information society, this is a systemic but dysfunctional characteristic. Self outlined how public choice policies in the UK have tended to diminish citizen involvement and democratic action, while increasing social inequality and distrust. The purported ‘customer focus’ does not explain why so many citizens have been both politically and economically disempowered by public choice regimes (Self 1993). He suggested the democratisation of the market system, to allow wider inputs and values.

Public sector reforms in Australia

Australian reforms comply with overseas trends, and have been characterised as: adoption of business plans and revenue targets; introduction of guidelines in place of inflexible rules; a move away from centralised controls; application of market practices such as user pays; more flexible work and pay arrangements, and more emphasis on client needs (Ives 1994). Along with smaller and more streamlined government have come the assumptions of managerialism, categorised as: the product format, instrumentalism, integration and purposive action (Considine 1988). They extend business techniques to government, but without clarifying what substitutes in government for the profitability which provides a ‘bottom line’ for business. The merging of business and government processes further emphasises property relations, and leads to goals and objectives being set at the top, with less input from other actors, such as community groups. The limitations of a business model of government have been widely noted (Mintzberg 1996, Kettl 1997, Wallis 1997, Self 1993). Integration of tasks leads to uniformity, and concern with instrumental aspects, rather than social outcomes. There is an emphasis on quantification, and technocratic determination. Lateral relationships and communication are sacrificed for tighter hierarchical control (Considine 1988).

A central document Towards a Best Practice Australian Public Sector (1996) showed the approach to public sector reform during the late 1990s. Quotes from the document reveal its underlying assumptions: ‘The culture of the Australian Public Sector does not sufficiently promote high performance or drive innovation, and the important contribution of individual public servants is often overlooked or stifled by process and unnecessary regulations. There is evidence of a lack of collective vision amongst its leadership. Management remains cautious and conservative.’ A need was seen to eliminate much of the legal obfuscation of public sector procedures, and get closer to private sector best practice. However, ‘Equally important, the Government seeks an environment in which public servants have much greater say in the way they perform their work.’ The document invoked familiar mechanisms: maximise outsourcing to the private sector, set client service standards and improve the accessibility, transparency and responsiveness of the public sector. It stated that public servants want less hierarchical, more flexible workplaces. ‘In particular they want more direct relationships with their employers and to be treated with greater respect.’ Thus, the paper seemed to endorse the concept of industrial democracy, while at the same time encouraging private sector models. It offered no suggestions for improving either lateral or downwards accountability, although a true ‘client focus’ would require such measures.

A democratic critique of the reforms

The issues raised by these reforms are the same everywhere. Problems of evaluation have been noted (MAB/MIAC 1993), along with the rights which distinguish citizens from consumers (Bunn and Ranald 1993:211). The political nature of the reforms has been recognised in Australia (Zifcak 1994:44) as elsewhere (Peters 1996). Emphasis on performance measures leading to reliance on quantification has been widespread (Zifcak 1994:125), as have morale problems in the public sector (Kettl 1997). Schroder (1997a) described the wave of reform since the election of a Liberal government in 1996 as continuing the agenda of the previous Labor years. She saw Australian public sector reforms as heavily driven by overseas forces. Globalisation of policy thinking has meant that private sector models have been adopted by governments of ‘any political persuasion.’ The implication is that increasingly, there is only one set of options for government.

The loss of national sovereignty is a common criticism of these neoliberal transformations. For example, Bell (1997) noted that national elites in Australia are learning to ‘take their cues from the globalised process of neoliberal elite discourse.’ He said this causes policy making to shift outwards and upwards, towards such institutions as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the G7 group of nations. Domestic policy options become limited. However, Bell argued that while accountability to external bond markets and agencies has increased, the state is by no means powerless. Much manoeuvrability remains at the microeconomic level, and many pressures for neoliberal policies come from within. Bell concluded that it has been a domestic choice to capitulate to the neoliberal thrust. In particular, he noted the ‘powerful bureaucratic agencies at the centre that ooze neo-liberalism and that have made life difficult for a succession of weaker and more marginalised industry departments.’ This view was confirmed in the major case study, where the departmental secretary was repeatedly described as a neo-liberal. Bell’s analysis showed that as with technology use, there is always room at the margins for economic interpretation and change. Wallis viewed the New Zealand reforms as a policy conspiracy of actors who believe in their ‘neoliberal policy quest’ (Wallis 1997). Although they build trust and exchange favours among themselves, these technocrats and change agents operate from an ‘anti-democratic motivation to circumvent every obstacle’, thereby weakening democratic institutions by undermining public trust in the democratic process.

Analysts of the reforms have raised governance issues (Kettl 1997, Pollitt and Summa 1997) and noted the abuses of democratic process (Pollitt 1997) that can occur through contracting out and attenuated accountability. Kettl said governments cannot hand over their regulatory role to private agencies and retain democratic authority. A client focus introduces a bottom-up influence which alters the traditional top-down accountability to Ministers. The kinds of performance management sought in these reforms relies on political communication between different sets of actors, with the critical decisions made ‘at the margins’ (Kettl 1997). He also identified the role of democratic governance as pursuing the public interest by promoting the critical values of fairness, justice, equity and due process. In complexity terms, accountability is a form of feedback, which can stabilise the system by focussing on the public interest and democratic norms (negative feedback), or destabilise it with positive feedback that encourages risk minimisation and off-load of problems onto the public. Mulgan (1997a) noted that contracting out always involves trade-offs between efficiency and accountability. These trade-offs can compromise the ethics of individual public servants, and lawyers have warned of the possibility of increased fraud due to IT outsourcing (Australian Public Eye 2/9/97). The Canberra Times revealed in early 1999 that major computer corporations involved with government outsourcing contracts maintain dossiers on public servants, called the Bluesheet system, that uses details about their personal lives and preferences to target them with gifts or corporate tickets (Wright 1999). Apart from these potential problems for accountability, outsourcing of information technology often lacks a strategic focus, and thus may not even demonstrate cost efficiencies.


The above analysis shows that the values, assumptions and techniques which characterise public sector reform resemble those described in Chapter 2 in relation to the global information society. Australia is clearly in the mainstream of a widespread process of change in public sector management. This is essentially a market model which minimises the role of government and places increased responsibility on the private sector for the delivery of services. The minimisation of risk has been described as both a consequence and a purpose of contracting out (Mulgan 1997a), and is another aspect of the off-load problem or prisoner’s dilemma. The focus on client service rationalises, quantifies and instrumentalises the role of government, while simultaneously minimising developmental relations. Social goods are progressively commodified. Recognition that the public sector involves value judgements (Keating 1990), without calling for clarification of the social values involved, creates dilemmas for public servants, which will be discussed further in Chapter 4. Although the intent of the reforms is greater flexibility, their top-down nature can produce positive, destabilising feedback. The number and diversity of actors is limited, via down-sizing and corporatisation. This leads to Hypothesis 6:

Public sector reform espouses the values of globalisation.

And Hypothesis 7:

Public sector reform emphasises instrumental forms of communication.

Implications for information technology use in government

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. Some agencies, such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics, are now charging for services that previously were free. 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). The review below of some key Australian policy documents on the Internet and information technology will illustrate how the challenges of public sector reform have been met in this critical area.

3.4 Some key Australian information technology policy documents and initiatives

You mean we wouldn’t be able to control who we communicate with?

Response of a First Assistant Secretary to the suggestion of using an email list to enhance the policy process.

There has been surprisingly little analysis or evaluation of information technology applications aimed at citizen-government communication. Like public sector reform, Australian public policy on information technology has followed overseas trends, but the initial conditions included strong considerations of public benefit. Neither the public policy nor computer literature has seriously attempted to chart or analyse these technological policies in Australia. The following brief summary illuminates that gap, but does not claim to be comprehensive. Rather, it surveys some of the key policy documents which have articulated the national approach to the emerging information society. As with the above look at broader public sector reform, the perspective here will be to what extent these policies acknowledge and encourage democratic communication processes, both in the development of the policies and their overall direction. It is a central claim of this thesis that these two aspects, the developmental and the instrumental, cannot be sharply separated. Inclusion of several documents at the state level will be used to illustrate their self-similarity with national approaches.

It is useful here to begin with a non-government document on Australia’s information infrastructure policy. Clarke (1994) clearly set out the importance of this infrastructure in determining Australia’s future well being. Recognising that important social values are at stake, he attempted to ‘informate’ the debate, so that policy settings can be ‘identified, articulated and implemented which will exploit the opportunities rather than the people.’ In describing the stakeholders in the political economy of the information infrastructure, he noted that ‘the set of interests least likely to be powerfully represented is those of the public.’ He made a strong argument for explicit inclusion of the public interest in the development of this infrastructure, and gave the elements of this public interest which would need attention. The ability to perform multiple roles, as providers of content, not just passive accepters, and the need for sufficient training to make good use of access were both seen as essential. These were needed for a ‘participatively-oriented’ infrastructure, which in turn would unleash the creative forces necessary to become a clever country. He advocated openness of systems, content and delivery, along with ‘relative bandwidth symmetry’, implying equal access as either provider or consumer. Avoiding an engineering approach was also important.

He recognised the global nature of the infrastructure, and the need to take a national path while ensuring ability to participate in this global system. He warned of corporate domination of the agenda, and likewise the possible destruction of collaborative community through commercialisation. He advocated encouragement of the non-profit sector, ‘where sufficient voluntary energy and commitment are forthcoming’, and pursuit of equity across social and geographic groups and economic sectors. The role for government was outlined as protecting public interests, including reversing the trend towards charging for government information and ensuring freedom from surveillance, and establishing clear socio-economic objectives. This would require government investment, particularly in the early years. There was detailed discussion on possible pricing structures consistent with these goals, which recognised the role of shared norms and values in avoiding the ‘tragedy of the commons’ on the information superhighway. Clarke concluded that government must recognise the importance of its multiple roles as leader, stimulator, co-ordinator, facilitator and regulator. His monograph was an informed and strongly normative analysis of how Australia should proceed down this complex path. It provided a guide consistent with the definitions of democratic process used in this thesis, which can assist in evaluating subsequent government statements of policy for the information infrastructure. It also recognised the need to encourage a diversity of small actors to achieve creative solutions that also reflect public interests.

The following survey is chronological, from 1994 to 1998. The reports are listed below.

Document title


Originating body

(1) Networking Australia’s Future

December 1994

Final Report of the Broadband Services Expert Group

(2) Clients First: The Challenge for Government Information Technology

March 1995

Information Technology Review Group

(3) Framework and Strategies for Information Technology in the Commonwealth of Australia

December 1995

Office of Government Information Technology

(4) Putting Australia on the New Silk Road: The Role of Trade Policy in Advancing Electronic Commerce


Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

(5) Management of Government Information as a National Strategic Resource

August 1997

Report of the Information Management Steering Committee

(6) A National Policy Framework for Structural Adjustment within the New Commonwealth of Information

August 1997

Information Policy Advisory Council

(7) Discipline Research Strategy for Information Technology (Working Draft)


Australian Research Council

(8) Towards an Australian Strategy for the Information Economy

July 1998

National Office of Information Economy

(9) State information policies


New South Wales, ACT, Queensland and Western Australia information policies

(1) Networking Australia’s Future

This document examined the technical, economic and commercial preconditions for widespread delivery of broadband services to homes, businesses and schools in Australia. It drew on consultation with a wide range of groups, and listed submissions came from a fairly balanced set of corporate, community, government and individual contributors. It included a strong social development and equity perspective, and encouraged the participation of consumers and small business. It noted the need to promote social interaction, enrich education, and improve health services, as well as improving delivery of government services and improving the competitiveness of business. One heading was ‘A Communications Society’, rather than a more narrow economic concept. It called for sensible management of change, and recommendations included minimal requirements for Australian broadband content, wide participation in setting standards, open accessibility, supply of broadband to all schools, libraries, medical and community centres by 2001, and a community applications fund to support innovative applications of community services. Electronic voting and public consultation were listed under future government broadband services, along with community bulletin boards and information services. The government was called upon to show leadership, while encouraging the private sector. The document also highlighted that interactive services are essential, as opposed to one way, and that consultation and collaboration were necessary for best outcomes.

This early map of Australia’s broadband future showed high awareness of the civic role these technologies could and should play, and their potential for facilitating participation at every stage in the evolution of these networks. This was an optimistic document, and its more ambitious aspects have not materialised.

(2) Clients First

This influential report reflected a client perspective in government IT services. The recommendations called for rationalisation of data networks and information systems across networks to achieve greater cross-agency flexibility in service delivery and economies of scale. A Chief Information Officer would help integrate information technology with the business needs of the public sector and corporate planning processes. A high level advisory and consultative group would develop a ‘blueprint’ for information technology policy in Australia and co-ordinate a common approach to client service delivery in government.

The report was commissioned by the Minister for Finance, supported by the Information Technology Review Group in Finance. The Office of Government Information Technology was subsequently set up in the Finance portfolio. The approach was firmly business driven, and advocated devolution to agencies, consistent with the need for improved coordination. There was some consideration of wider governance issues, primarily in relation to privacy concerns. However, the policy development recommendations did not extend to the need for consultation beyond the public service itself. Thus, it was left to the Commonwealth to ‘assess existing privacy guidelines and the potential of multiple agencies to deliver services to clients through single points of contact.’ Innovation and development was oriented at government as business, and towards clients, but not at citizens. Outsourcing was considered, but not given blanket approval. Greater interaction between industry and government was promoted through ‘partnering opportunities’, but a similar encouragement of communication with non-profit or community level organisations, even for developing a client service, was absent.

(3) Framework and Strategies

This ‘Blueprint’ document provided a more detailed set of objectives for the integration of information technology to achieve world class ‘cost-effective provision of affordable, equitable and accessible Australian government information and services.’ The technical and business orientation, again with a client orientation, described a number of innovative projects in government, and called for a merger of IT and telecommunications plans in government agencies, partly in response to the global converging environment. It noted increased public demand for quality services which respect privacy, data security and confidentiality. It called for increased competition on outsourcing of Commonwealth information technology activities, and the development of a broad framework for government information management, with standards for Internet and other electronic information provision. Consultation with department IT staff, their unions, the Public Service and Merit Protection Commission and industry was suggested to establish standards for staff IT skills. Thus, there was a business orientation and the express hope of ‘building Australia as regional base for global IT companies to supply fast-growing markets of the Asia -Pacific’. However, there was also recognition of the need for equitable, inclusive services to avoid an ‘information rich, information poor’ society. The report did not recommend a universal access policy, as with telephone services, but noted the need for community based information access, ‘such as local libraries, schools, and similar facilities.’

(4) Putting Australia on the New Silk Road

The title of this document from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade reflected their longings for the benefits of electronic commerce. The perspective was fully globalised and commerce oriented. Missing was a recognition, on the international scale this report addresses, of Australia’s possible role in promoting a more socially aware form of global electronic commerce. The community service obligations that informed domestic documents were almost completely missing. For example, possible negative impacts on employment are noted, but an optimistic scenario was possible, dependent on ‘creating an environment that supports electronic commerce, on the mix of economic policies and particularly, on the flexibility of the labour market’. The framework was intended to advance ‘the interest of Australia’s online companies on international market.’ Together, these statements implied that the public would bear any costs of restructuring for a global electronic commerce framework, and that sustainable social outcomes were not key goals. This interpretation is supported by the list of stakeholders who were consulted: exclusive representation from industry and government. There was no call for ongoing mechanisms for feedback from consumers, or their inclusion in further consultations. An annex quoted liberally and uncritically from the US framework for electronic commerce, and its principles of deregulation, private sector lead, global approach, and minimal government involvement.

(5) Management of Government Information as a National Strategic Resource

A very different set of values came through in this weighty document. The terms of reference were based on the recommendations of Clients First and the IT Blueprint. These included cost-effective management of government information, identification of existing initiatives, and principles for public access to government information. However, the vision statement for the report went beyond efficiency and aimed for ‘better government’, which ‘uses its information fully, as a national strategic asset for government, business and the community’(p xvii). The community was viewed as an ‘actor’ in government information. Improved information flows were sought ‘to promote collaboration’, rather than for narrower cost-savings or even better service delivery. Accountability as a value was also supported, with indications throughout that this means more than value for money. There was a pervasive awareness of the need to address social as well as economic issues, and to create a framework for individuals to interact richly with government, rather than simply as clients for government services: ‘it will no longer be acceptable for government to consider clients as transactions waiting in a queue. Australians will become better informed individuals….’(p 12). The need to integrate business plans and achieve cost-effectiveness through information management was an important component, but this was not viewed in isolation. Technical and legal aspects of information management were placed in a values framework, informed by theoretical understanding and discussion of information society concepts and prominent overseas projects. A set of information service principles started with the statement that ‘access to publicly releasable government information is a fundamental right of all citizens in a democratic society’ (p 34). The recognition of government information as national resource created a logical connection to other principles, such as access at cost of transfer, and ensuring the availability of information at the local community level.

Information was seen as a key area for management effectiveness in programs of public sector reform, along with human resources, finance, and capital assets. The report’s principles were intended to fill a gap and provide guidance on government information management, similar to that already available for human resource management. It recognised that better access to government information would allow greater participation, as well as better service delivery. This perspective came through clearly in the section on Open Government, which supported the recommendations of a joint Australian Law Reform Commission and Administrative Review Council report on freedom of information (FOI). These included amending the FOI object clause to provide access that would ‘enable people to participate in the policy, accountability and decision making processes of government’, ‘open the Government’s activity to scrutiny, discussion, comment and review’, and ‘increase the accountability of the executive’ (p 32).

The Information Management Steering Committee report also included a section on electronic democracy, only slightly changed from the draft to the final report, except to add a final paragraph advising caution on the benefits of electronic democracy, while keeping a watching brief on such initiatives in other government jurisdictions. There was considerable discussion on the potential for interactive communication, such as the Internet, to provide more effective feedback mechanisms. The intention was again participatory, and sought ‘broader and possibly more balanced input to policy processes’ (p 131). This was seen as a mechanism for continuous improvement and ‘more balanced’ input to policy, at least on less controversial topics.

The report incorporated the elements of democracy and policy formulation as creative, participatory communication processes, and saw the potential for new technologies to facilitate and update these. It also did not shy away from government’s obligations to take a leadership role in this area. Responsibility for implementing this report rested with the Office of Government Information Technology which became the Office of Government Online in mid-1998. The technical recommendations are being progressively implemented by relevant agencies, bringing some benefits of wider information distribution. In mid 1999, the researcher was unaware of any overt electronic democracy initiatives, or any overall directives towards greater transparency of the policy process.

(6) IPAC national policy framework

This document reflected the ambivalence within the contributing policy communities. In addition to industry and government, the library community and consumers were represented. While acknowledging the domination of multinational institutions and the need to adapt to this situation, it also advocated Australia staking a claim to achieve sustainable economic benefits and preserve community values. The focus was on the new political economy, an important variation on the earlier term ‘information society’ and the later ‘information economy’. While not mentioning the growing inequities in global or national political economies, this document did place social and community outcomes at the top of its national objectives. The repeated reference to sustainable communities and industries underpinned the remaining working assumptions and outlines of roles for government and industry. Industry and government were both assigned leadership roles. Thus, there was an assumption of the need for diverse inputs, with explicit roles for community and consumer stakeholders. Values of trust and security, along with user collaboration, were given as key elements for electronic interfaces.

(7) ARC Discipline Research Strategy for Information Technology

The purpose was to develop strategies to increase the benefits of information technology research for Australia, and terms of reference include both social and economic benefits. The emphasis was heavily on industry development, although the vision was that ‘Australian IT research will be recognised as a major driving force contributing to the prosperity and social cohesiveness of Australian society’. However, the strategies made no mention of practical areas of study such as the role of computers in government, improving government accountability in relation to critical areas such as outsourcing, or social aspects of the emerging information society. Major stakeholders in IT research did not include community interest groups. The stated belief was that IT ‘benefits society as a whole in the new services it provides, in the benefit to social prosperity through employment opportunities, access to knowledge and information, enhanced communication and in improvement in the balance of overseas trade’. It is unclear how these desirable social outcomes might be ensured by the suggested ARC sub-panel on IT, with members from the diverse disciplines of Computer Science, Computer Engineering, Software Engineering, Digital Communications and Information Systems. The divide here between instrumental technological approaches and a wider social view was extreme, with few actors available to put forth alternative perspectives.

(8) Towards an Australian Strategy for the Information Economy

In mid 1997 a Minister for Information Economics was appointed, and a National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE) established within the portfolio of Communication and the Arts. This was described by a departmental officer as ‘paving the way for the private sector in electronic commerce’. The final document offered in this brief review is the strategy document released by NOIE in mid-1998. The title of the office indicates its orientation.

The office took over responsibility for electronic commerce aspects of information technology in the Commonwealth, while the Office of Government Online took carriage of projects within government. NOIE’s strategy document acknowledged social obligations, and included the community as one of the stakeholders. However, the aim was to ‘capture potential gains in new markets, boost employment and small business activity and maximise innovation and creativity.’ Calls in the earlier Networking the Nation for an ‘information society’ were subsumed in this document by the information economy. However, this was somewhat softened by a blurring of the distinction between society and economy. The first principle for the Commonwealth in shaping the information economy was that:

All Australians—wherever they live and work, and whatever their economic circumstances—need to be able to access the information economy at sufficient bandwidth and affordable cost; and need to be equipped with the skills and knowledge to harness the information economy's benefits for employment and living standards.

Thus, a form of universal access was deemed necessary, but the orientation was towards consumption, and ‘harnessing’ benefits for employment and living standards. Concepts of social sustainability through participation were not mentioned. Government was to show the way, but the private sector and in particular the global context in which it operates, comprised the remaining principles for development of Australia’s information economy. The remainder of the document discussed how these goals were to be achieved, with much emphasis on awareness raising and online service delivery in the health, education and government sectors. There was to be consumer protection, and Australia was to influence the international framework for electronic commerce. There was no sign of integration of these economic goals with other aspects of society. Performance indicators for local content in electronic commerce, or improved outcomes in health, education, employment or equity were missing. However, following public submissions on the draft document, which were also made available on the agency web site, a revised strategy was put forward which placed greater importance on wide access, and social indicators and outcomes.

(9) Other information policies

Information management strategies from New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia showed similar orientations towards service delivery, outsourcing, and maximising opportunities for electronic commerce. Typically, these policy statements covered such issues as privacy, telephone access, industry development, the Year 2000 problem, copyright and acceptable use. None of the three mentioned plans to improve citizen participation in and access to government as part of the policy process, even though a Queensland project, discussed below, was doing just that. Formal policy statements indicate the general direction being pursued, but can not indicate the richness that may lie beneath the surface, given motivated actors with social approaches to interactive technology.

A similar approach to these state plans was presented in ‘Government.Direct’, a UK document on Electronic Delivery of Government Services, which emphasised passive access rather than participation. At the local level, a draft Community Information Strategy for the Australian Capital Territory listed key information which should be available electronically, but omitted contentious urban planning issues from this inventory.


Australian public policy on information technology and Internet issues has been informed by traditional views on participation, active citizenship and communication as a nation building activity. Earlier documents reflect this quite strongly. But as the Internet developed and the forces of globalisation became more powerful in the Australian government, private interests came to the fore. 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.

There is increasing reliance on global actors for guidance, with fears voiced that Australia will be left behind if it does not comply. Even so, much thought has gone into ensuring that a social policy perspective is retained in some of the key documents on information technology use in government, with explicit attention to democratic values and forms of communication. Several sets of actors are discernible. The process followed by the National Office for the Information Economy on their draft strategy was an example of nearly full interactivity, as the consultation process iteratively used the technology to create feedback loops. All comments were available to all commentators, so that patterns in public response became obvious. Such measures have the potential to improve accountability to the public, as would wider canvassing of views prior to development of the draft policy. However, the overall orientation of the policy remains focussed on economic outcomes. 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. This leads to Hypothesis 8:

Australian national information technology policy tends to emphasise instrumental, economic approaches

The next section moves from these somewhat abstract policy formulations to specific Commonwealth interactive initiatives and groups. An important Queensland project is also included. Here the impact of the policies becomes clearer, particularly in relation to the ability of public servants and researchers to carry out innovative projects using interactive technologies.

Australian government interactivity initiatives

The Commonwealth, along with state, territory and local governments, has initiated a large number of online and interactive projects. The intent of this brief survey is to illustrate the ability of these technologies to create new channels of communication and new forms of lateral and vertical accountability, and to indicate the diversity of actors influencing such projects. A comprehensive survey of government Internet projects remains an important area for research and evaluation, particularly from the perspective of the research question: how can interactive technologies contribute to democratic policy processes? The projects discussed below all make use of advanced communication technologies, and all were initiated by government, mostly at the Commonwealth level. Each has an information component, but also a provision for feedback and developmental dialogue. That is, they are not just one way conduits for information. Most were conceived as facilitating communication across boundaries that normally exist between agencies, or between clients and service providers in government. Their success or abandonment, and the limits to their scope, will be considered in relation to the concepts of public policy and democratic process.

Community Information Network

The CIN was a research project established by the Department of Social Security. It ran between July 1994 and June 1997. Its aim was ‘to examine the potential of new and innovative community-based services to improve the living standards of people on low incomes’ (Scott, Diamond and Smith 1997:6). Thus, its goals were linked to wider social outcomes, rather than to achieving cost savings. It had two components: a web site and free community-accessible PCs. Information distribution and experimental online service delivery were a key part of the project. Another goal was enhanced social participation, particularly for those who tend to be marginalised and excluded from access to new technology. These goals were not seen as incompatible, but rather mutually reinforcing. It was an ambitious project, but the geographically dispersed public access network, via CIN sponsored computer terminals, was withdrawn in 1996. The interactive web site remained for a while, with separate on-line ‘rooms’ for seniors, youth, women, the disabled, etc. Comments were invited, although it is not clear whether comments on policies, as well as technical feedback, would have flowed through to policy areas. This loss of a public access network diminished the possibilities for local interactivity at a time when general directions for Australia’s information channels were rapidly evolving. At the end of the pilot, there were about 7000 registered users (Scott, Diamond and Smith 1997:49). By mid 1998, all sign of the CIN had vanished from the departmental home pages. Information about departmental programs remains accessible on-line, but without a mechanism for discussion or a free publicly accessible network. An evaluation of the project found that it had achieved a rough gender balance in users, no mean feat, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics and many other surveys of Internet usage. The pilot also achieved both greater access to information, with clear flow-on benefits such as access to job networks, improved IT skills, better social integration based on the personal contact in the community centres, and enhanced feelings of personal well-being in a safe environment, free from stereotypical judgments based on appearance, etc (Scott, Diamond and Smith 1997).

Education Network Australia

The Education Network Australia (EdNA) was initiated by the then Department of Employment, Education and Training in 1995 as a de-centralised network, partly reflecting Commonwealth/State demarcation issues. After a bumpy start, it was turned over to Education.Au Limited, a company owned and funded by all education and training ministers in Australia. It evolved into a site linked to thousands of others with relevance to Australian education, and dozens of discussion groups and notice boards. In 1998 it was a finalist for the 1998 Carl Bertelsmann Prize, which focuses on social and policy challenges of the Internet (Burgess 1998). It is an example of a privately managed project with public funding, meeting a social need for information sharing and networking among citizens with a professional interest in an important area of social policy.

Commonwealth Internet Reference Group

This group, and its corresponding email list, Cirg-L, were initiated in 1994 to facilitate communication about Internet matters within the Commonwealth. It was set up and managed by a senior officer in the Office of Government Information Technology. Middle level officers, mostly technologists, held fairly regular meetings, supplemented by communications via the list. The general topic was the development and use of the Internet in the Commonwealth. The information and views provided were part of consensus building and sharing best practice on development of web sites, monitoring usage, and a range of other topics affecting both the practical and policy aspects of this set of technologies. The Cirg-L list complemented the Link list, with some overlapping subscribers and topics, and many duplicated postings, until its range was narrowed in mid-1996 to focus more specifically on government initiatives. It then became an announcement list, featuring rare but useful messages from the originator/moderator and one other subscriber. Meetings gradually ceased, although an informal web managers group was in existence as of mid-1999. Thus, the potential of this group to become a policy actor, either singly or collectively, was minimal. Subscribers were primarily implementers, not policy shapers. Some of the work of the CIRG was folded into the implementation of the Information Management Steering Committee report. However, there is little opportunity for discussion or sharing experiences about Internet issues at the operational level within Commonwealth agencies, particularly for officers whose main work is communicative, rather than technical.

Pubsec mailing list

After a modest beginning in the Department of Administrative Services early in 1996, Pubsec grew to become a lively forum with international input and discussion. Strangman (1996) discussed the possibilities for his then newly established Pubsec list to contribute to policy deliberations by creating a collaborative forum for academics, policy practitioners, and private sector parties. His early observations were that the primary use was for information exchange. Gradually, however, the list contracted in content and number of postings. While it still offers occasional useful information, there is virtually no discussion. This partly reflects the less open culture which seems to prevail in the public sector generally since the election of a Liberal government in 1996. Such lists also tend to have a life cycle, with ebbs and flows of interest and intensity. A pattern of horizontal membership (Perin 1991) tends to prevail, with members clustering at the middle management level. Flow-on to subscribers’ home agency is uncertain, implicit and tangential, rather than intentionally exploited. Officers tend to stick with factual exchanges, noting that they haven’t time for philosophy. Prominent disclaimers distance their statements from the official position of their agencies, although, as one Finance officer observed, ‘I don’t believe there is any such thing as an off the record conversation.’ The ‘textualising’ of communication on interactive systems (Zuboff 1988) encourages a cautious approach. Pubsec and Cirg-L inevitably reflected their government sponsorship. Strangman was no doubt correct in his assessment that issues of legal liability would make a Commonwealth-sponsored public and unmoderated list highly unlikely. Likewise, government sponsorship limits the scope of policy discussion, as public servants are hesitant to offer non-agency views on policy proposals. Thus, Pubsec was unlikely to have a formal role in policy development, and its contribution to the shadow culture of the public sector was limited. Structural and cultural norms and expectations ensure that such effects are dampened from within. The development of Link, as an independently owned list, has followed a different trajectory, and is discussed in Chapter 7.1.

Citizen choice

This video, produced for Medibank Private by Anderson Consulting in 1997, emphasised the role technology can play in delivering services. It gave examples from government around the world providing better service through telecommunications. These one stop shops allow access to government services with the same efficiency expected from private enterprise. In the video, woman in the United Kingdom who was able to check jobs, childcare, and benefits all at one place expressed her appreciation. This public relations exercise omitted any consideration of the developmental use of these technologies. The woman was able to arrange services with less bureaucratic confusion than previously, but she was not offered the option of influencing or even commenting on factors affecting the types of jobs, housing or child care available to her. The video made no mention of privacy considerations, freedom of information or transparent feedback mechanisms to the government that would ‘complete the loop’ in establishing excellence in service delivery.

Australia’s Cultural Network

The ACN was intended to become a comprehensive resource of Australian online cultural information and services. It is a federally funded public access gateway Internet site to more than 1200 Australian cultural organisations, websites, resources, news and events. It is also an exchange centre for resources, ideas and information where cultural workers and organisations can communicate with each other to improve and develop their use of online services. A search engine and pathfinder assist in locating events, performances and resources, and Internet Development Guides are available to assist organisations to get online. The ausculture mailing list associated with the site had approximately 300 subscribers, and was closed down in June 1999. The policy for the ACN highlights some of the ambivalence in Australian information technology policy. On the one hand, it views the role of government as encouraging ‘business and consumers’, and repeats statements about the ‘information economy’. At the same time, there is a strong recognition of the need to foster access and participation in culture, partly to ensure that Australian values are reflected in our media and not overtaken by the global marketplace (Cook and Hewison 1998). In the 1999-2000 federal budget, the funding for the ACN was cut back by about 80%, effectively ensuring its longer term collapse.


The Australian Commonwealth Government Entry Point, launched in March 1998, provides one-stop access to Australian government information, services, departments and agencies. Developed as a joint initiative by the Office of Government Information Technology, AusInfo and the National Library of Australia, it includes keyword search facilities, a media release service, a government wide telephone directory, and a list of links new events in agencies. The notice of its release boasts the principles of ‘visibility, accessibility and interoperability’. It is part of wider ‘investing for growth’ initiatives. Maintaining such a site cum database is a daunting task, given that fewer than 20% of Commonwealth sites are said to comply with metadata standards. It offers improved transparency of government operations, and even direct access to some public servants’ email addresses via a search function. This provides the possibility of lateral and direct communication between public servants and the public. As the next example shows, such measures can help create lateral accountability, which breaks through cumbersome and often unresponsive hierarchical government structures. Fedlink does not, however, provide any links to discussion groups or other mechanisms for collective citizen-to-government communication. It is a directory service.

An experiment in interactive feminist research

This Queensland project was an important illustration of new technologies providing cost-effective and productive contact between citizens, government and industry. An initial trial using email and interactive satellite television to communicate with rural women led to a collaborative project using a range of interactive technologies, including audioconferencing and an email discussion group. The project was richly multilayered, both in its methodology and its implications. There was a reflective, iterative aspect throughout. Feedback from the first stage, ongoing participative evaluation, workshops considering the action research methodology, and discussions during field trips were all important for the final design of the project. Interactive technology as a tool was balanced by awareness of the need for face-to-face training and contact. The researchers drew on ‘feminist principles and ideals’ which included openness, reciprocity of communication between participants and researchers, recognition of difference and diversity, and use of empowering, action-oriented methods (Lennie 1998). An ongoing email list, the welink (women’s electronic link) discussion group, has been the most successful aspect of the project. It has involved a diverse set of participants, including rural women in Australian and overseas, industry partners and government officers, and others in key policy and decision-making positions. Outcomes have included increased confidence and experience of participants with online technology and a sense of social solidarity and community building within a partnership model. An additional developmental outcome has been increased trust and understanding between groups that previously had limited opportunity for direct communication. Thus, bureaucrats, industry sponsors and rural women have been able to find common ground and shared values (Simpson, Daws, Lennie and Previte 1998, Lennie 1996). To an extent, the boundaries that separated city experts from rural experience have been transcended. This work is unusual in its honest approach to the problems of power in the design and application of communication innovations. The ‘feminist’ characteristics align easily with those described by this researcher as ‘democratic’, and are also consistent with the definition of policy as a communication process requiring wide participation.


Some 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, as described in relation to the NOIE strategy. 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, as with EdNA, 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. Beneficial social outcomes tend to be undervalued.

The next section relates the observed patterns in Australian information technology policy and programs with the research about government trends in this area.

3.5 Literature on trends in electronic government

Hernon and McClure (1993) provided a survey of this literature. They found that US policies on electronic government information overlapped with and impacted on many areas, and involved fundamental issues about how society operates and the role of government. Work in this area tended to be fragmented, and address specific issues rather than general principles. They indicated the actors and policy communities from the public and private sector that have staked out an interest, but noted that there has been inadequate public debate or research in these complex areas which defy easy categorisation or solution. They called for multimethod techniques and qualitative approaches, as events tend to outpace society’s ability to deal with the social, behavioural and policy issues that electronic government information raises.

Their observations were mostly based on the US literature, but accord generally with Australian experience. While several of the policy documents reviewed above took an integrated approach to information technology as a national resource, the overall policy trend in Australia emphasises the instrumental level of such interconnectedness. For example, much Commonwealth attention and resources have gone into addressing the Year 2000 problem, with less attention to the developmental plane of social participation, as described above in relation to particular programs with interactive potential.

Fletcher and Foy (1994) reviewed the literature on the uses of information systems in state and local governments in the United States. They noted that when generic information systems are applied in government with the assumption that it is identical to private enterprise, disaster follows. They identified fundamental differences in government accountability and decision making. Their analysis indicated that technology design decisions are never value-free. They also highlighted the importance of studying government uses of information technology.

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 if modelling is to support democratic policy processes, a diversity of models and modellers should be encouraged in the interests of pluralistic competition. A consensual perspective would encourage modellers to become mediators and ‘entrepreneur policy analysts’. They would become political actors who use broad communication and mediation skills to resolve conflicts among politicians, bureaucrats, and technical experts. This sheds light on Henman’s (1996) study of policy computerisation in the Australian Department of Social Security, discussed below. It also implies that a democratic perspective can be embedded in the design of and access to policy modelling systems.

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. In the secretive British government, democratic accountability becomes difficult, and multi-million pound investments in failed systems can be hidden. Margetts did not, however, spell out what democratic uses of information technology might mean, although she discussed the hopes of the techno-utopians for more openness and participation, and noted that open government is expensive and therefore unlikely to be realised. Her observations of these effects of wide-spread outsourcing in United Kingdom, a path Australia has been pursuing for several years, is of most interest when considered together with Henman’s research on the role of computers in Australian social security policy processes, below.

Relevant Australian literature

There is widespread agreement on a lack of vision in Australian technology policy (O’Kane 1993). There are few Australian studies of government information technology from a social participation perspective. As with the US literature, the few studies reviewed below are specific, rather than general, and do not offer an overview of government approaches to information technology. Research has concentrated on consideration of social issues in the telecommunications field, rather less on information technology policy in relation to electronic democracy, and has almost ignored democratic implications of information technology at the organisational level. An important exception is the collection in Aungles (1991), which will be discussed in Chapter 4. The studies below look at government uses of information technology at either the state or federal level.

The most useful work has tended to come from information professionals, mostly librarians. They are both able and inclined to integrate technocratic needs with social goals. For example, Parer (1997) wrote about her work with the Information Management Steering Committee, and the need for a centralised meta-data structure. The intent was citizen-oriented, to facilitate two way communication between citizens and government via an accessible and reliable information architecture. Missingham’s (1997) insights into the future of libraries were valuable and equally applicable to electronic government information, given her position as head of the Federal Libraries Information Network (FLIN) and librarian in a Commonwealth agency. She saw four factors reshaping libraries: a business orientation, higher client expectations, new technologies and growth in information quantity and complexity. She said that as the most used cultural institutions in Australia, libraries have an important role to play. Librarians are becoming information managers, guiding quests and providing cost effective assistance as needed. Underpinning her practical analysis was the assumption that all citizens have the right to be informed, not just those that can afford an information broker. This approach was echoed by Gilbert (1996), a manager in the Australian Parliamentary Library. She saw interactivity as an important aspect of new communication technologies, and believed that information should be structured to facilitate access, rather than to meet administrative requirements. Her work involved the Government Information Locator Service, or GILS, which creates a high level meta-data system for indexing information. Gilbert’s main focus was on the information generated by parliaments, such as Hansard, committee reports, bills and tabled papers. She welcomed the trend towards making information available for free via the Internet, as it lessens the disadvantage to the ‘technologically poor’. She warned of an overly technical approach, and called for an integrated, subject based approach across government. Her awareness of overseas electronic democracy projects and their potential in Australia illustrated a social perspective. These writers were united by a combination of technical expertise and professional values which contribute to the ‘access to alternative forms of information’ criteria for democratic process.

Williams (1995) looked at the role of information technology in regulatory reform. His work was unusual because it examined linkages between the organisation and the public, and brought awareness of the complex interplay between information technology and political design elements. The case he studied was electronic lodgment service (ELS) for the Australian Taxation Office, and the effects upon legislative compliance. Through interviews and surveys of tax agents, Williams found that ELS promoted ‘regulatory cooperation at the level of routine transactions’, by saving time, assisting planning, etc. He went beyond this instrumental level, however, to ask whether a broader view of regulatory reform might involve social and organisational issues as well. Economic benefits have been shown to be only part of the motivator for compliance. Complex relationships of asymmetry, reciprocity, stability and legitimacy, as well as efficiency, were also important. ELS alone did not alter the relationship between agents and the Tax Office. Williams concluded that ‘cooptation involves effective participation by the regulated in regulatory decision-making…[the lack of which] appears to remain an obstacle to regulatory reforms in Australia.’ In his emphasis on the mutuality of outcomes, Williams came close to a discussion of electronic democracy. He also recognised that ‘technology is limited in the support that it can provide for participative decision-making.’ The limitations he referred to were not primarily in the technology, but in the political will to consider the ‘informating’ applications of these technologies.

The need for an integrated approach was reinforced by Worthington’s (1996) study of world wide web usage by government agencies in Western Australia. Solving the security, organisational, technological and business issues required reengineering of many processes, which in turn was dependent on sharing information across agencies. Although Worthington’s primary interest was in the web as a communication mechanism with citizens, the organisational issues he revealed are relevant to the current research project. They included problems of inertia, the need to gain support from senior management and determining areas of responsibility for emerging activities. Like Williams (1995), he found technology application could not be viewed in isolation from wider issues, in this case both within the agency and across the state government.

Henman (1996, 1997) examined the interrelation between computerisation and social security policy. He found computers help to automate the administration and implementation of policy, and assist in its monitoring, evaluating and modelling. Computerisation was accompanied by greater client contact and client surveillance, increased policy complexity, and massive policy change. Possible cost efficiencies resulting from automation and greater uniformity may be offset by increasing complexity of policy, requiring labour intensive client liaison. Computers make policy more quantitative and accelerate the rate of change. The interpretations embodied in computer administration become de facto policy, and computer systems staff gain institutional power. The impacts of such rationalisation were to intensify the time frame and formalisation of policy, and increase the scope for surveillance. Clients were increasingly compelled to monitor themselves. He outlined the implications of these processes for governance, noting that the use of technology is deeply entwined with political intent. The logics of computers and rational bureaucratic management were complementary. The use of computers in social security policy, therefore, was part of wider power structures, and a socio-technical process of governance. Henman also noted that historically, the governing activity of technology has been overlooked by sociologists, as has been found in the current research in relation to public policy. His analysis confirmed that of Andersen (1995) above, on the importance of computer modelling of policy, and the democratic implications of its control by technocratic elites. His title, Constructing Families and Disciplining Bodies, indicated the instrumental, rather than humanising, impacts of computerisation in the policy field.


The literature discussed above reinforces the need to clarify social goals in the application of information technology. Many of those involved in the design of the government information technology infrastructure show awareness of the political nature of their work, and many indicate concern for equity and social goals. The work of Henman (1996, 1997) showed that information technology is becoming a major element in the policy process, and tends to change the relationships of citizens to government in ways which constrain and homogenise individuals. With new technological interfaces, such as described by Williams (1995), and with policy modelling, as analysed by Andersen (1995), there is the potential for the application of technology to become an end in itself, if provision for client feedback is absent. If Australia’s outsourcing of information technology follows the path outlined by Margetts (1996) in the UK, many aspects of public policy will increasingly reflect the values of their corporate managers. This provides support for Hypothesis 1, that technology use will reflect the values of dominant actors.

The work of Williams (1995) and Worthington (1996) also indicated the interplay between activities at the organisational level at wider state or national policy, providing support for Hypothesis 5, which stated that the levels for the application of interactive technology impact on each other.

3.6 Chapter summary

Hypotheses 4 and 8 proposed that the uses of interactive technology tend to be instrumental, rather than supporting the forms of interactivity associated with developmental aspects of democracy, at the global and national levels respectively. Again Hypothesis 1 predicts that these will reflect the dominant actors and values at each of those levels. Seen through the perspective of complexity, these indicate a fractal pattern, an attractor which is the collection of all variations of itself. This pattern or attractor has the general characteristics of globalisation, which in turn can be seen in a slightly different transformation as the features of public sector reform. At each point and each level, they rely on individual actors to contribute to the outcomes. The pattern manifests in the use of interactive technologies, which tend to focus on specific, measurable outcomes and a service-oriented approach to government-citizen relations. Wider, long term social participation, which reflects the developmental potential of these technologies, is often overlooked. This means mechanisms for full transparency and open-ended interactivity are often curtailed. In those cases where actors succeed in implementing innovative programs, such as were outlined in Section 3.4, full interactive communication becomes possible with a wider set of actors and values. The system becomes more chaotic, but not necessarily less stable. This more diverse set of actors, ie, that subset of the general public who can get access to the technology, often reflect participatory values. The Queensland welink list has improved understanding between government and non-government actors in ways that would not be easily achievable through other media at similar cost. The inputs from ordinary actors provide stabilising, negative feedback, which in the context of this thesis is considered to be normalising.

As seen with the Pubsec and Cirg-L lists, the collapse of the Community Information Network and the severe cutbacks for Australia’s Cultural Network, there are systemic inhibiting factors on the forms of lateral communication such mechanisms offer. A major issue for the Westminster system of government, as in Australia, is the degree to which public servants communicate directly with the public. On the one hand, this raises important legal and privacy and security issues, both for the public and for the public servants. But it also offers the potential for improved accountability and better policy if these actors can communicate without hierarchical filters. In complexity terms, they can self-organise at the chaotic fringe where real innovation and creativity can occur, through the re-pluralisation of the system. A related question is the role of government in fostering these forms of communication between stakeholders, and how pervasive outsourcing of information technology functions impacts on that role.

These questions are vital at all levels of policy activity. This chapter has outlined some of the rationales and perspectives that influence government approaches and projects to information technology. These pressures and values influence actors within the government agencies where such policies are implemented. The effects of the changing shifts in values resulting from the trends of public sector reform described above have profound effects within agencies. The Australian Public Sector has mechanisms in place which support industrial democracy, and has also been an early adopter of information technology. Chapter 4 explores the intersection of these issues at the organisational level. Figure 9 illustrates how often, even nation states have fewer resources with which to assert their values than the multinational corporations that offer telecommunications, computing and media services.

Figure 9 Not represented are the complex feedback loops between all elements