It’s hard to make a business case for that sort of thing.

Government information technology manager, when queried about the lack of interactive communication technology in that agency (from an abandoned case study)

Chapter 4 The Interactive Organisation

4.1 Introduction

The last chapter identified the patterns of public sector reform and their relation to government uses of information technology. It identified a trend at the national level towards economically focussed applications which repeat the patterns of globalisation and inhibit reflective participation in government policy. This chapter considers the role of interactive technologies in democratic processes at the organisational level. In keeping with the social perspective of technology argued in Chapter 2, this requires understanding the factors shaping organisational change. As with the other theory chapters, a broad focus progressively narrows. Thus, there is a general background on participation in the management literature, then changes and pressures affecting opportunities for democracy in organisations, a review of relevant literature on technology in organisations, and a summary which indicates the dominant patterns and actors and values and further hypotheses for testing in the case studies. At the end of this final survey chapter two tables set out alternative sets of values affecting information infrastructure and suggest how these might translate into practical structural protocols.

Starting with writers on industrial democracy, Section 4.2 links their ideas to recent management theory, along with organisational learning concepts. The role of technology in these new approaches is also considered. These diverse concepts are related to the elements of complexity theory, as outlined in Chapter 1. This provides a background for Section 4.3, which looks at the practical impacts of current organisational practices on individuals. Of particular interest is the dilemma that current management thinking has created for public sector culture. Section 4.4 overviews the literature on computer-mediated communication in organisations, and the few Australian studies of information technology within government agencies. Some of this literature was explicitly concerned with the potential for new technologies to foster more democratic workplaces, but the evidence was equivocal. The concluding section will argue that a wider systemic view is needed, as the patterns for technology use in organisations are influenced by external issues and values.

4.2 Management and democracy

These are not words usually used together, as military terms such as ‘command and control’ in the management literature indicate. Public sector employees are still called ‘officers’. Concepts of industrial democracy have, however, 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. As was shown with public sector reform in the last chapter, dominant ideas on management practice also filter down to public sector agencies. The interest here is on participation within organisations, and the role of interactive technologies in these processes.

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. He rejected the idea that these relations ‘simply dissolve into contracts and exchanges freely, voluntarily and rationally entered into by employers and workers’ (Dahl 1989:329). 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.

Pateman (1970) took a similar approach to that of Considine (1994), as outlined in Chapter 1 in relation to the policy process. Pateman described the protective function of participation, which ensures good decisions are made for self-interest, and the developmental or psychological function, which gives first hand experience in the collective management of affairs. Considine’s analysis called these the instrumental and developmental aspects of participation. Like Dahl, Pateman considered any persistent pattern of human relationships that involves significant authority to be a political system. Most organisations meet this criterion. Full participation, rarely realised, would give workers the right to remove managers and full access to relevant information. Pateman argued that only this strong approach to participation can overcome the observed apathy and cynicism of workers that is often used to justify authoritarian decision making. This entails co-determination, which resembles Dahl’s democratic criteria of participation, control of the agenda and voting equality at crucial stages. Such participation cannot be fully implemented without a profound restructuring of management practices, and this often leads to the subversion or coopting of staff (Lansbury and Spillane 1983). As with government uses of the Internet, described in Chapter 3, 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 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.

Another avenue for workplace participation has been industrial design. This area of industrial democracy was pioneered by the Scandinavians, particularly in relation to computer systems. While space prohibits a full exploration of this field here, it can be noted that the trend towards pre-packaged standard software all but eliminates the possibility of participation in desk top systems in most organisations. The case studies of the current research found little attempt to involve users in design of systems, other than for determination of specifications for major processing applications. As will be seen for industrial democracy more generally, participatory design is not a thriving realm of organisational activity.

Hampson (1991) considered the arguments that new technologies would encourage greater participation because they require greater skills and cooperation. Although writers such as Zuboff (1988) correctly observed that computerisation brings a need for new and often abstract skills, this does not automatically lead to empowerment in the workplace. Hampson rejected such suggestions as technological determinism, and claimed industrial democracy can only arise from political struggle, rather than ‘fictional imperatives’ such as technologies. While Hampson and Zuboff were writing primarily about production processes, the focus here is on administrative and policy work, which always had a substantial abstract and intellectual component. The researcher’s experience and that of many other colleagues confirms that even in these areas, software or intellectual skills have little relation to meaningful participation in internal processes. This view is consistent with the arguments of Feenberg (1991), set out in Chapter 2, that political assumptions are embedded at the design stage of technology. The researcher argues that this is not always the case, but every stage of planning, design, implementation and evaluation is a site for struggle between sets of values and actors. It is possible to become highly competent as a professional, yet have little say in even routine professional decisions, due to the continued domination of hierarchical power structures, whether or not these are formally entrenched in the workplace technology.


The above discussion of workplace democracy and its relation to information technology provides further illustration of Hypothesis 2, that the role of communication technology will be a site of political struggle at every level. Hampson’s argument resembles that of Feenberg (1991), as discussed in Chapter 2. In a workplace which requires intellectual skills, communication technology can not be assumed to have a developmental, empowering role. This leads to Hypothesis 9:

Interactive technology can simultaneously facilitate instrumental learning and democratic deskilling.

The discussion below on the impacts of public sector reform at the agency and individual levels will develop the case for strong democracy in the public sector. The next section provides necessary background by considering how management writers have viewed participation.

Kanter on participation

The evolution of participation over 20 years in the writing of an influential management theorist illustrates general trends. Kanter (1977) gave detailed consideration to the need for participation in this early work. Her interest in the personal development of individuals led her to recognise the connections between power, communication, quality of work life, and participation. She advocated a wide systemic view, realising that redesigning work without changing wider power structures was inadequate. She noted the importance of information and communication for meaningful workplace empowerment, and rejected the semblance of participation which could just become a burden, or even manipulative if information is inadequate. She saw the possibility of ‘organisational civil rights’ in a future which looked beyond organisational change to examine labour divisions and the concentration of power. At that time, she believed large organisations could not be made effective or fully humanised, and that such systems ‘appear to be economically efficient only because of their power over markets and other aspects of the environment’ (Kanter 1977:285). Thus, she hinted that these structures may not be fully productive, if viewed from a wider systemic perspective. The implicit element in her analysis was social responsibility, which is another aspect of the prisoner’s dilemma or risk minimisation process, as discussed above. Her consideration of organisational civil rights and access to information also imply recognition of the need for downwards accountability, a key element in democratic forms of communication.

Later her attention shifted to participation as a means of avoiding segmentalism (Kanter 1984). Feedback and effective communication were needed because ‘integrative thinking, holistic, team oriented cooperative environments is where innovation flourishes.’ Thus, participation helped corporations deal with current challenges (Kanter 1984). It became an instrumental activity, a management technique. Still later, she described the methods of integrated global corporate success. Like athletes, these ‘giants learn to dance’ by creating a climate of innovation, through interdependence and rapid information sharing, and by minimising their obligations and contracting out non-core activities. Strategic partnerships with other giant corporations allowed change to be used to mutual advantage, since healthy business was seen as America’s best chance of securing its children’s future (Kanter 1989). At the same time, she warned of ‘cowboy’ tactics which ignore human costs, and recommended heavy investment in training, and greater awareness of family needs. She advocated collaboration with unions and a social safety net. Good management would allow ‘grieving about the past’ while encouraging exploration of the future, and would give staff the incentives and opportunities to become independent of the organisation. Sensible advice, considering the liklihood of job redundancy.

There was just one brief mention of ethics in Kanter (1989), which noted that ‘business athletes must have the highest ethical standards’. This was important from a social and moral point of view, but also on pragmatic grounds: you need the trust of your strategic partners (Kanter 1989:362). There was no consideration of the wider ethics of the corporation’s role in society, or of developing trust with less athletic strategic partners, such as third world suppliers. By 1995, Kanter seemed to advocate corporate omnipotence. Previously enunciated principles of minimising obligations, maximising options, keeping fixed costs low through outsourcing and downsizing, leveraging through influence, and maintaining flexibility (Kanter 1989:354) were complemented by recognition of the problems in local communities as jobs migrate elsewhere. The corporation was seen to supply a defacto form of governance, with examples of ‘social entrepreneurship’ revitalising communities (Kanter 1995). There was no discussion of how corporations might be held accountable for their good deeds. Jobs were seen as the best social program, and all efforts should emphasise the benefits of cosmopolitanism [ie, globalisation], as opposed to ‘nervous nativism’. There were no references to participation in determination of common goals, democracy, industrial or otherwise, ethics, equity or even relevant policies such as taxation. The corporation was shown operating autonomously, self-organising for the betterment of humankind through ever wider circles of influence and consumption. Concepts of sustainability were noticeably absent, as were any considerations of corporate responsibility to third world countries and people. The only reference to ‘environment’ was a comment that nations have great difficulty agreeing on standards. It was not included in her calls for world best practice. Mechanisms for participation within organisations were not mentioned. Kanter’s system was global, but only included other corporations, thus creating a closed loop of accountability. In complexity terms, destabilising positive feedback did not seem to pose a threat, provided the guidelines ensuring growth were followed.

A recent perspective on corporate participation was given by Agyris (1998). He explained why fashionable ‘empowerment’ strategies fail: most executives only allow personal choice if the parameters are so closely defined that the old ‘command and control’ becomes irrelevant. Employees see the boundaries, and respond with outward commitment and compliance only. Inwardly, where it counts, they withdraw. He said performance, not empowerment for its own sake, should be the goal. Agyris thus indicates that insincere empowerment is organisationally dysfunctional, but stopped short of drawing wider ethical or social implications. But he showed that even learning can be approached instrumentally.

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 about 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 would have to be part of this dialogue. He said technology has a Jekyll 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 some 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. This leads to Hypothesis 10:

Industrial democracy requires full developmental participation.

The calls for equitable distribution of organisational costs and benefits (Hardy and Schwartz 1996) and reflection on the underlying values which go beyond profit (Lester 1998), along with the need many writers expressed for organisational truth telling provide further indications of the links between behavioural attractors. Personal values and behaviour clearly impact on organisational attractors, through the complex negative and positive feedback loops which characterise all forms of learning. These organisational patterns, in turn, relate to the organisation’s role in wider social and political processes. Inevitably, the communicative potential of interactive technology becomes an integral part of organisational feedback and learning.

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), discussed in Chapter 2, 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 (Dewan 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.


It is argued here that underlying systemic values shape the attractors for complex organisational behaviour. This leads to Hypothesis 11:

The types of learning and the potential forms of participation are embedded in simple beliefs about what the system does and who it serves.

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.

As was argued in Chapter 2, the uses of technology follow from social factors. This is reinforced by the literature on computer-mediated communication in organisations, reviewed in Section 4.4 below. While Chapter 3 made the link between globalisation and the actions of nation states, this chapter continues that link to the organisational level. The researcher also claims that an integrated set of democratically determined system goals is an urgent task for the public and private sectors. It is becoming difficult to identify either values, practices or roles which distinguish the public sector from its global private counterparts. The quandaries this convergence creates for both management and staff in the public sector, so clearly evident in the major case study of this research, is the topic of the next section.


4.3 The globalised individual

Pressures on organisations to perform to global standards rarely lead to benign internal regimes. The lean and mean management style Kanter warned of decades ago is now widespread in contemporary organisations. Business sections of bookstores carry titles such as How to Outsmart a Mean Boss and The Toxic Workplace. There is a growing literature on ‘mobbing’, a term derived from animal behaviour studies, which documents how weak, vulnerable or simply different individuals can be targeted for abuse and discrimination in the workplace, sometimes leading to suicide. Quality of working life has declined for many workers, and number of hours at work have increased. Lacking voice, many choose to exit. Others content themselves with whatever rewards will reduce their cognitive dissonance (Sims and Gioia 1986:201). It becomes increasingly difficult to simultaneously ‘break the loop’ (Hardy and Schwartz 1996) and acknowledge the wider system while retaining a toehold in the system. These trends affect all levels of the workforce. Like other CEOs, heads of government agencies are lucky to stay for 18 months (Schroder 1997). There is also limited opportunity to act collectively, as union membership drops (Morehead et al 1997) and individual contracts become common. Rather than becoming empowered through their intimate association with computers, many highly skilled intellectual workers become subject to ‘micromanagement’ and machine-like conditions. A study of executive officers by Price Waterhouse Urwick revealed their biggest challenge was how to manage and lead people, given the need to demonstrate productivity gains over the short-term by exporting costly forms of work. The costs of unproductive time ‘pass from the business to the workers, or the state and community’ (Schroder 1997). Often, what is today considered ‘down time’ is the personal or professional attention once provided freely, without measurement. This off-loading of care or responsibility is another example of the prisoner’s dilemma, discussed in Chapter 2. It is now an important feature in both public and private sector organisations. As with technology applications, even the most detailed contract or performance agreement can not specify the action to be taken in the chaotic fringes where individual values determine choice. This is where the instrumental and developmental aspects of policy converge, and become ethical shapers of behavioural attractors. Thus, managers and subordinates always have choices in discretionary areas. Feenberg’s (1991) ‘social contingencies’ are Senge’s (1992) key leverage points for reflection and the application of longer term values.

The rise and fall of industrial democracy in the Australian public sector

How do current organisational trends mesh with industrial democracy principles? This must be considered prior to a discussion of how interactive technology might embody these. In the 1980s government agencies developed industrial democracy plans. These, and the consultative councils that accompanied them, provided for ‘weak’ participation. Employees were encouraged to contribute to discussion on industrial and related issues such as occupational health and safety or training via consultative committees. An understanding of industrial democracy (now called workplace relations) principles and mechanisms forms part of the routine selection criteria for public sector employment. Without downwards accountability or alternatives to hierarchy, such measures had limited impact. Nor have Australian enterprises indicated much ability or willingness to undertake genuinely democratic workplace reform in conjunction with introducing new technology (Williams 1991a). It has been argued that the public sector needs the highest ethics, due to the significance of the decisions and the nature of the power available for enforcement (Keating 1990). Because public servants help determine policies and deliver programs for most other citizens they likewise need the highest commitment to democratic process, particularly in a contestible and outsourced environment, where ethics and democratic process entwine. Public servants are obliged to manage these relations for the public interest. This can only happen if organisational processes support this through transparency and accountability measures. Authoritarian political relations at work engender submissiveness (Hampson 1991) and a cynicism towards policy impacts outside the agency. These responses become systemic. Applying the fractal model, this is why departments, companies, countries, or cities tend to have a particular ‘feel’ about them, where every domain resembles every other. Public sector employees are now more likely to be dissatisfied, highly stressed, insecure and distrustful (Morehead et al 1995). Many inside actors consider industrial democracy to have had its day in the public sector.

The public servant’s dilemma

We have some pretty putrid people here.

CEO of a government agency, speaking to a meeting of a group set up to improve internal communications (from an abandoned case study)

The above sections outline the difficult position of many Australian public servants at the end of the century. Officers at all levels face similar choices. Those motivated by a sense of serving the public and faith in government as a solver of public problems often find themselves sidelined, or unable to perform their duty as they see it. The ability to find workable solutions to social and economic problems is diminished, because the groups most likely to articulate and support reform are ‘squeezed and disciplined’ (Considine 1988). Dedicated officers, lacking a real means of participation in the policies and methods and measures of their jobs, become cynically resigned or seek other avenues for remuneration or satisfaction. Others sing the solfeggio of managerialism, shrugging off the frustrated chorus trying to give feedback on the costs of internal and external policies which are counterproductive of the wider good. One informant said ‘long term now means six months away’. The Australian Public Service, once a leader in promoting diversity, opportunities for women, training, flexibility and compliance with international guidelines, is now losing its way. Organisational risk is minimised, but passed along to individuals (Stewart 1997). Employees at every level are less secure, even those most successful at eliminating other employees. Uhr (1988) noted the increasing number of political appointments and a reduction of comparative advantage of public servants over private sector. This pattern is repeated at the state level, with 90% of executive officers in New South Wales admitting that political factors influence their policy advice. Self (forthcoming) has documented the loss of bureaucratic integrity which has accompanied lean public sector administration and weakened accountability in the UK. Morgan (1986) described the many images of organisations which influence their activities and directions. One public servant said a current image might be the public sector organisation as a bad parent.

The traditional machine model of government, dominated by rules and standards, functioned because it was rooted in a normative system of social values and beliefs, a concept of public service and dedication that is now fading (Mintzberg 1996). He noted that in this model ‘any one piece looks just like the rest’. This self-similarity and Mintzberg’s recognition of values as the unifying element relates directly to the researcher’s proposition that values shape the fractal patterns of systemic ‘attractors’. These values are now shifting rapidly, with growing emphasis on individuality and minimal responsibility to either the agency or the society it legally serves. In the absence of downwards accountability (Mulgan 1997) or meaningful participation, it is difficult to see how the public sector can achieve the necessary bottom-up reforms. Although a need for more direct, lateral and downwards forms of accountability (Considine 1994:221, Aucoin 1991, Zimmerman 1995 respectively) has been recognised, little has occurred to advance this. Experiments like the Queensland rural women’s online project, described in Chapter 3, are important but undersung. The still prevalent form of public service decision making is illustrated in Figure 10, with a suggestion for introducing more reflective, feedback intensive lateral communication and learning.

Figure 10 The hierarchical ‘stovepipes’ of linear accountability. The vertical arrow shows the traditional direction of decision making and accountability in the public sector. The small horizontal arrows show points of potential lateral direct communication and accountability with other agencies or public stakeholders. These are also points of self-organisation, where individual actors can assert their values. This helps to maintain the levels of diversity and turbulence necessary for democratic process.

The sea change in public sector values described above has not received adequate attention. These changes in government structures are inevitably reflected in the ways information technology is thought about and applied. The next section provides an overview of the literature on organisational uses of information technology, including government agencies.

4.4 Computerisation in organisational development

The study of computer-mediated communication examines the impacts of interactive technologies at the organisational and individual level. Focussing on the participatory aspects at these levels can shed light on other scales. The following overview of the literature looks for general patterns, and for the balance between instrumental and developmental uses of interactive technologies, particularly in internal processes of policy and governance.

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. Wang’s observations on computerisation reinforce both Zuboff’s (1988) informating arguments and Senge’s systemic, value-based approach. This becomes Hypothesis 12:

Full developmental participation has correlates in the way technology is used at the organisational level.

And Hypothesis 13:

Computer-mediated technology tends to be used instrumentally at the organisational level.

The above discussion on learning and complex feedback mechanisms in organisations showed that such instrumental uses are not fully efficient, if viewed from wider perspectives. These tensions between instrumental and wider developmental perspectives are manifested at many levels and through many technological spaces in organisations of all sizes, as the following discussion shows. The recognition of the political nature of computer systems is long standing and widespread in the literature (Keen 1981, Dahlbom and Mathiassen 1996, Boddy and Gunson 1996:196), along with the inescapable impact of existing social patterns on computerised social fields (Fulk, Steinfield, Schmitz and Power 1987, Fulk and Boyd 1991, Fulk 1993), partly due to the self-replicating nature of internal social patterns (Perin 1991). It can therefore be counterproductive to treat information technology implementation in isolation, without regard to power shifts and communication issues (Katzer and Fletcher 1992, Benjamin and Levinson 1993). Malone and Rockart (1991) predicted that computer networks would bring about major changes in corporate structure and management style: a shift in decision making from internal to external, data captured from external markets, and a paradoxical combination of centralisation and decentralisation. They said the time frame for decisions shrinks, and lower level people become empowered for certain tasks, but subject to monitoring by those above. As the amount of information increases, power spreads, and people who can creatively analyse, edit and act on information in ways that cannot be automated will become even more valuable. The ultimate outcomes will depend on the values people embrace, and this requires careful thought about deeper goals (Malone and Rockart 1991). They did not indicate what these goals might be, and thus stop short of integrating their system with the world beyond the organisation. Other examples of the instrumental/developmental divide in information technology applications include Leonard-Barton (1990). In studies of production software in hi-tech electronics firms, she found technical learning was transmitted more efficiently than the organisational learning necessary to use the technology effectively. Abdullah, Leng, Valida and Norwawi (1996) surveyed the use of computer information systems by Malaysian chief executive officers and found it mirrored the management hierarchy. Thus the literature on organisational applications of technology reveals a repetition of the instrumental patterns identified in previous chapters at the global and national level.

Three specific areas where computer-mediated communication provides opportunity for meaningful organisational learning are email, groupware and intranets. Again, the literature below indicates ambivalence in the way these technologies have been applied, and the relation to underlying organisational norms and assumptions. Email has been much studied since the early 1980s. Zuboff (1988) described early computer conferencing, and management’s nervous reaction to it. Email’s ability to reduce social cues, and the increased flow of information generated by email was considered a force for deregulating communication (Sproull and Kiesler 1986). At the same time, it can be used subversively, or as a means for employee surveillance. As early as the mid 1980s, researchers thought computer system design could encourage collaborative groupwork and filter out information overload (Hiltz and Turoff 1985). Since then, groupware has been widely applauded for its suitability for networking ideas (Kirkpatrick 1996, Nunamaker et al 1991), and even as a way of compensating for low computer skills (Alavi 1993). However, users’ mental pictures about collaborative possibilities influence their ability to use this software effectively, as do organisational policies, norms and reward systems (Orlikowski 1996). Technology use within organisations tends to reflect existing cultural and social relations, rather than transforming them (Mantovani 1994, Fulk 1993, Benjamin and Levinson 1993, Clement 1994). Intranets also have the potential to bring out latent power bases in an organisation. Arch (1996) outlined the organisational steps that are required to gain acceptance of what was an experimental technology. Building support is crucial, as the IT area is not always receptive to user-driven efforts. The other side of this coin was evidence that incorporation of IT department representatives into strategic planning processes leads to more successful use of IT applications (Boddy and Gunson 1996:6).

The above discussion provides evidence for Hypotheses 1 and 2, that technology use reflects the values of dominant actors and is therefore a site of power struggle. This reinforces the importance of organisational social structures in determining the usefulness of computerised systems, and indeed, how this concept is defined. However human networks have been largely ignored, at least in early library and information science writings, and the office systems implementation literature has focussed almost exclusively on the analytic/technical perspective (Grosser 1991). This insensitivity of computer systems professionals to social issues is a common source of dissonance (Boddy and Gunson 1996:196, Warneminde 1992). Grosser’s review covers material from sociology, organisational theory and behaviour, social psychology, management, marketing, information science, and communication studies. She found benefits from treating potential users as codevelopers rather than passive receivers of technology. Like Feenberg (1991) she found information technology was rarely used exactly as intended, as new uses emerge and spread. Computer-mediated communication has a socio-emotional function, but cannot supplant personal face to face exchange. It was found to be more suited for asking, exchanging information and opinions, and keeping in touch, and less useful for bargaining, resolving disagreements, or tasks which are equivocal. Grosser also found that the informal cultural network adds value to the raw data of formal communications by assigning meaning and interpreting signals for employees, or embellishing events to make them more exciting and palatable. Human networks have a tendency to pass more favourable information upwards, filtering out important but negative feedback to executives. Both these tendencies were observed in the case studies of Part II. Grosser recommended that distortion through internal grapevines could be managed by maintaining honest and open communication, keeping employees informed about issues of importance to them, and admitting mistakes. These homilies are consistent with the literature on organisational effectiveness discussed earlier.

A long term study in United Kingdom looked at the impacts of computer networks on organisational structures and practices. Boddy and Gunson (1996) found practices became more consistent, less idiosysncratic. While the systems might ‘masquerade’ as decentralisation, this was more often the delegation of routine and less significant decisions (Boddy and Gunson 1996:7) Staff autonomy was reduced, although feedback accuracy and timeliness to management improved (Boddy and Gunson 1996:223). This was what Considine (1988) found in the managerial framework. Few management structures changed radically, partly because managers usually controlled the development and implementation of the systems. Structural change mostly occurred through ‘accidental incrementalism’, similar to Feenberg’s ‘social contingencies’.

Longitudinal studies of networked systems in organisations found that technological change and organisational change have become ‘increasingly indistinguishable’ (Boddy and Gunson 1996:189). They also found that the linear life cycle theory of investigation, analysis, design, development and implementation, was less relevant to organisations with ‘fuzzy’ requirements (Boddy and Gunson 1996:194), surely a characteristic of the public sector. This implies new, dynamic models must be found and applied, a central argument of this thesis. Boddy and Gunson warned against trying to set a strategy in one central place, with no leeway for changes. In a complex, perhaps uncontrollable and unpredictable environment, only the boundaries of action can be set centrally, and the strategies can unfold within those boundaries, as the project evolves (Boddy and Gunson 1996:248). This language is again similar to the terminology of complexity theory. The concept of an attractor used here is essentially a set of organisational behaviours. They also noted that many mechanisms for involving staff in system decisions were manipulative, mostly symbolic ‘front stage’ acts that create a fleeting feeling of participation. The real purpose, however, was to ‘unfreeze’ processes and attitudes, rather than take the time to address real concerns. Meanwhile, ‘back stage’ activities aimed to control the agenda and suppress dissenting factions (Boddy and Gunson 1996:201). Kanter (1977:256-257) recognised such strategies as pseudo-democratic. Overall, Boddy and Gunson concluded that networks were being used to increase the degree of internal discipline, consistency and control within the organisation (Boddy and Gunson 1996:250), a finding similar to Henman’s study of computerisation of policy in the Australian Department of Social Security, as discussed in Chapter 3 (Henman 1996, 1997). Boddy and Gunson’s work also illustrated Hypothesis 3, on the link between uses of IT and processes of governance, and also Hypotheses 12 and 13, that full developmental participation would have correlates in the uses of IT, but more often than not, IT tends to be used instrumentally within organisations.

The final studies reviewed here explicitly examined the democratising potential of computer-mediated communication. Clement (1994) found that ‘empowerment’ was used in conflicting ways, and that often the ability to ‘act to create value’ was the result of computing innovations in leaner organisations whose focus was improvements to function and efficiency. He contrasted this with ‘democratic empowerment’ which would involve lower-level staff in discussions about the conditions of work and setting goals. Clement provided yet another indication of the ‘instrumental’ use of IT for doing more of what was already being done, rather than exploring new ways of working. 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. Finally, Schrage (1998) offered observations about computer design in education which apply equally to the role of computers in government. He said it is a myth that computer technology is about information: it is about creating and managing new relationships. There is a ‘silver bullet’ mentality about the use of computers in education, which assumes humans are linear and rational, and that changes in information lead to similar changes in behaviour. He noted that knowledge communities are about much more than the exchange of symbolic information. They involve standards, ethics, protocols, rules of community interaction. The design of relationships is more important than the design of information. Schrage believed people would much prefer a 25% improvement in managing key relationships with their bosses to a ten-fold improvement in managing information. He quoted MIT colleague, Malone: ‘the more choices you have, the more your values matter.’


Studies of computer-mediated communication within organisations provide support for many of the hypotheses developed in the preceeding two chapters. These studies show that the patterns of IT use at the organisational level tend to replicate those seen at the global and national levels, with similar issues over power and governance, and instrumental versus developmental applications which correspond to narrow, often less successful strategies versus full participation and learning. This provides support for Hypotheses 5 and 6, that these patterns will emerge at all levels, and be linked. Repeatedly, the research on both management and computerisation has brought up the importance of values in determining how relationships, both internal and external, will be structured. Hypothesis 1, that the use of technology reflects actors and their values, would seem to be validated at every level. Complexity theory offers a way of integrating this collection of hypotheses, by seeing IT use as a set of emerging behavioural attractors that are interrelated, and are driven by values at every level. Government agencies are a particular subset for consideration in this discussion of what it means to be an interactive organisation. Writers such as Senge and Lester saw an important role for the corporation in shaping wider governance, with links between internal policies and external impacts. Might not government agencies have unique responsibilities in supporting democratic process, both internally towards staff, and externally as part of their public accountabilities? If so, the arguments developed in the preceeding chapters suggest that such commitment would find expression in their uses of computer-mediated communication. The next section explores a much smaller literature which considers whether computerisation in government agencies has followed the same trajectory as in other organisations. Given traditional public service values and formal commitment to industrial democracy, might this not be reflected in their internal systems?

Literature on computer-mediated communication within government agencies

Although sparser than the more general organisational studies, the literature on uses of computer-mediated communication within government agencies reveals similar issues. Berman, Eaglstein and Phillips (1995) found that application of computerised systems to social policy in Israel was an arena for struggle between contending factions, but tended to enhance the position of managers and support the status quo. Caudle (1997) looked at information technology performance management with the US General Accounting Office, and found the interest comes from taxpayers, elected officials, and other organisations. In the US, a series of laws, including the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, places pressures on agencies to use their information resources effectively. She suggested setting measures for results and accountability at various stages of technology implementation. This complex process requires an organisational culture of ongoing innovation and learning. Common understanding and agreement for the proposed IT goals are important, along with organisational readiness in the form of values and principles that support a performance management system (Caudle 1997). Employee satisfaction and retention rates can be key indicators of success. Caudle recognised a broad platform for accountability that exceeds agency boundaries, along with the need to achieve both stakeholder and staff satisfaction. She found these principles were seldom acknowledged, and information technology was often implemented without regard to overall performance or organisational culture and receptiveness. This leads to Hypothesis 14:

The ways government agencies use interactive technologies internally impacts on how they meet their external accountabilities

Heimler (1996) discussed the ways Canadian public sector rigidity inhibits the strategic application of information technology for more accountable and responsive governance. He argued that the volume and velocity of information now overwhelms a hierarchical organisational structure, but managers seek to hold on to their centralised ‘mainframe’ mentality. While IT can support a bottom-up decision making process, this requires a value-shift from dominant centralised top-down control systems. His catalogue of failings which lead to reactive short-term crisis response would be familiar to many public servants. Sources of alienation of both workers and clients include solutions which tend to mirror the beliefs of those at the top; blocking good ideas from filtering up; a preference for activity over learning and reflection; government failing to act as mediator; and no rewards for workable and efficient solutions. Because management overestimates its importance, yet does not fully understand the intricate ties between decision making, group processes and information technology, they view the technology as an adjunct to hierarchical processes. They become prisoners of the technology experts, who in turn do not question the goals of the hierarchy. Heimler found this especially held for contractors. The systemic processes he describes resemble destabilising positive feedback loops. His cure was a ‘philosophy of governance that goes beyond a philosophy of management…Public managers…must see themselves as serving the public and not the government, whether that be the executive or the legislature…This requires the statutory delegation of authority, responsibility and accountability to structures that are not simply at the whim of the political executive.’ His argument for more decentralised and lateral forms of accountability resemble those of Kettl (1997), discussed in Chapter 3. Both saw a need for internal structures to modify in order to meet changing external obligations, providing further support for Hypothesis 14. Heimler concluded that the ‘culture of contentment’ within the public sector would have to shift before the true efficiencies of technology could be realised. He outlined a typical implementation path for information technology, where challenges to the status quo are eventually suppressed as front line worker and client input remains excluded. His analysis was both systemic and closely related to concepts of industrial participation and policy as innovation. His observation that ‘policy and program responses tend to look and feel the same across a range of portfolios’ was an example of self-similarity in a closed loop. Again, Hypothesis 14 suggests that recognition of external accountabilities can help ‘break the loop’.

Several Australian articles round out this survey. Hasan and Hasan (1997) found local government was heeding the lessons from the private sector, and information systems were becoming aimed at the whole enterprise. They identified this as a process of democratisation in a study of executive information systems, where the ‘E’ started out standing for ‘executive’, but gradually came to mean electronic, enterprise, or everybody’s. These systems then became part of the mental map of the enterprise, which helped achieve quality outcomes by creating greater awareness of information as an organisational resource. They found no evidence that these information systems helped flatten organisational structures, although they clearly helped to diffuse access to information. Their findings supported Heimler’s analysis, that internal innovation was limited by existing management attitudes and structures. Warne (1995) analysed the reasons for the failure of a large system development project in the Department of Defence, and found issues of power and the politics of information control were pivotal. In complexity terms, this provides support for Hypotheses 2 and 6: not only does technology become a struggle for power at every level of application, but the patterns which emerge from these struggles show self-similarity. There is a fractal linkage between systems managers jealous of retaining a hold on their legacy data within organisations and global corporations seeking to consolidate media holdings, influence opinion and shape media content.

Contributors to Aungles (1991) discussed information technology in Australia, with a particular focus on industrial democracy. A public sector case study considered ID in relation to office structures implementation, which reengineered workflows to align with computerisation in the late 1980s. Williams (1991) concluded that industrial democracy and computerisation were ‘old issues in new guises’, as the same opportunities for empowerment existed previously. This discussion provides additional support for Hypothesis 14, which proposes links between internal computerisation practices and external accountabilities.

4.5 Chapter summary

This chapter has attempted to integrate concepts from management, industrial democracy, and computer-mediated communication. Current trends within organisations and the literature on computer-mediated communication reveal that both participation and information technology tend to be viewed instrumentally. The ability of this technology to release new energies and ways of working depends on a series of essentially political processes at every stage of its life cycle. It can be used to facilitate the complex learning and feedback now essential for organisational survival in turbulent environments. But this can only occur through full developmental participation, and that is rare. There is a gap between the collaborative holistic vision of writers such as Zuboff, Feenberg, and Senge and dominant organisational practice. Semler showed the possibilities for full industrial democracy, although for him, technology was just a tool. The values which currently dominate at the enterprise level are those of individualism, unquestioned growth and instrumental participation. Patterns of increasing inequality of resources and power are repeated fractally within public and private organisations. These are the same values outlined in previous chapters at the global and national levels.

The organisation as interactive, learning, innovative and responsive is an ideal eagerly sought but rarely found. One chief executive’s description of the catalyst for change was that ‘the mean time between surprises was less than the mean time between decisions’. The obstacles are often the very managers called upon to implement fundamental change. The proliferation of personal computers has not altered the ‘mainframe’ mentality of management, which emphasises central control. The dominant view of technology remains that of an instrumental, autonomous, apolitical tool. In the extreme case, this sets up a situation where interactive technologies become instrumentally exquisite, but deny the group and individuals any discretion that is not tightly focussed on outcomes set elsewhere. This, in turn, leads to a system where positive feedback loops amplify socially unsustainable behaviour. Complex, reflective learning becomes most difficult, just as it becomes most essential. Efficiency eclipses equity, as human issues are off-loaded to individuals. Democratic process collapses at the most sensitive point of influence – the immediate and the personal.

A critical approach to information technology requires an analysis of how it can improve working conditions (Preissl 1997). Yet there is an insidious notion that people can be treated like machines: interchangeable, capable of expanding their productivity and working time, given sufficient rewards. This linear view holds that employees respond primarily to financial incentives, and make decisions autonomously. Though rarely stated so blatantly, this covert belief underlies much of the literature on problems of implementing technology. Even a simple innovation such as email can have the unintended impact of exacerbating the ‘off-load’ problem through information overload. Repeatedly, the failure to consider workers in a social context invites hubris to the most elegant technological configurations. The white collar worker, even when highly skilled, is often expected to meet the specifications of a machine, rather than the machine enriching and easing working life. But these misconceptions are just symptoms of the greatest obstacle to true reform of the workplace: the age-old struggle between power and people. In today’s organisations this often takes the form of conflict over control of information and communication, as Zuboff (1988) and many others have shown. Ultimately, this remains a struggle for self-determination and for the right to have a say in direction setting wherever it impacts on the individual.

Complexity theory helps explain the dilemma modern managers face. Now as expendable as their staff, many nevertheless continue to act out linear assumptions of control. Yet their organisations’ survival may now depend on their ability to acknowledge inherent unpredictability and encourage spontaneous self-organisation and staff initiated solutions. Kiel (1994) saw recognition of nonlinearity as a new paradigm for public management. His properties of a self-organising organisation include continual renewal through diversity and creative response, as well as ‘involved participation’ (p 186). His analysis extended to citizen involvement, primarily as volunteers, presumably in activities such as park maintenance or social services. The unpredictable and uncontrollable element such involvement introduces easily extends to policy processes, as ‘Citizen demands for access to government are possible fluctuations that the democratic manager cannot avoid’ (Kiel 1994: 160). The hypotheses of the preceeding chapters propose that interactive technologies have a role to play in managing these chaotic challenges of public administration. They can improve both internal and external communication processes. This requires leadership which assists communal processes of learning, and encourages democracy as a system whereby communities do their own work (Heifetz 1988). This applies equally to organisational communities.

These issues are particularly important for the public sector to resolve, partly because it still functions as a systemic regulator for many other systems. The encroachment of monocular market values and practices in the public sector has created a sea change. A form of positive feedback prevails which spurs the advance of those with the least commitment to public benefit or fellow workers. Complaints of disempowerment, so common in Canberra, represent the voices of the players who realise individualistic performance masks machine-like submission. Industrial democracy in public sector agencies is now less meaningful than ever. The researcher argues that this is now a critical issue for governance in the broadest sense. However, the public sector has particular responsibilities. These are to ensure that all processes, internal and external, support and extend democratic participation and accountability, that both computer and interpersonal systems are as fully and publicly transparent as possible, and that mechanisms for deliberation and feedback are not just available, but effectively used. In an increasingly outsourced environment, openness of process clearly has both internal and external correlates.

This thesis proposes a fractal model relating values and behavioural attractors as a way of both seeing and addressing the global dynamic. For all organisations, democratisation of work is indispensable to a more participatory way of life (Feenberg 1991:17). This is one solution to the pervasive ‘off-load’ problem, discussed above. Policies of ‘risk minimisation’ push human and social costs onto the community, or, at the organisational level, onto individuals who become autonomous ‘losers’. If these strategies are so disastrous for individuals, how can they be good for society?

Some question the legitimacy of full participation in public sector agencies, given the nature of the Parliamentary system. Legal accountability flows up and outward, through Ministers of elected governments. Anonymity and protection from retribution is the trade-off for lack of downwards accountability to staff in the public sector. Along with others quoted in this chapter, the researcher argues that a rigid interpretation of the Westminster system misses the opportunity to transform democracy in today’s globally interdependent world. Dahl’s (1989) concerns about scale and complexity have not yet been addressed. Industrial democracy in the public sector need not be a counter to traditional forms of parliamentary accountability, but could complement it. In modest ways, the women’s interactive rural project in Queensland, described in Chapter 3, and the Link list on Internet issues and policy, analysed in Chapter 7.1, suggest that new forms of lateral accountability are possible. Interactive technologies can create more direct and effective communication channels, just as they do in modern industries. That such mechanisms have not been widely applied to democratic governance, and that serious discussion of this gap has not occurred, is not due to the virtues of the existing Parliamentary system.

The preceeding chapters have discussed in some depth the ways in patterns emerge in the uses of information technology. These are hypothesised to relate to processes of governance at every level, driven by the values of the dominant actors. Two tables are offered below which summarise much of the preceeding analysis. Table 4.1 contrasts democratic and globalising values in relation to information and its associated infrastructure and design. These values express both a conceptual intent and specific outcomes.

Table 4.1 Information Values



Universal access to the necessary technology

Access determined by ability to pay

Appropriate training

Minimal training for predetermined uses

Alternative sources of information widely available

Centralised sources of information

Diversity of views


Mechanisms for communication across sectors, levels and interests, many to many communication

Broadcast model dominant (one to many)

Participation in design of system

Trivialisation of participation, input to assist instrumental decisions only

Deliberation possible on any issue

Direct and indirect control of agenda

Openness of information gathering and decision processes

Secrecy about process, methods

Provision for reflection on these principles

System taken as given

Table 4.2 compares the structural principles, or strategies, which correspond to both democratic and globalising sets of values towards information. These may be viewed as communication protocols. These are intended to be maximally general, in keeping with the researcher’s search for underlying order or algorithms which are constant across scales. They are intended to be suggestive rather than prescriptive, and may also be considered the boundaries or extreme limits within which all real world applications of information technology form bifurcating attractors, similar to Figure 2 (in Chapter 1).

Table 4.2 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

The above chart leads to Hypothesis 15:

Organisations which adopt the suggested structures as communication protocols will be more likely to show signs of both industrial democracy and complex, adaptive learning.

There is no doubt that issues of corporate governance are here to stay (Wright 1996:14). Having completed the theoretical background, Part II of this dissertation considers the forms of corporate governance revealed during a two year case study of interactive systems in the Australian Department of Finance and Administration. Together with three minor case studies, the evidence will be compared with the analysis and hypotheses developed in Part I.