Behind every method lies a belief. Researchers must have a theory of reality…

Zuboff (1988, notes on field research methodology)

Chapter 5 Theoretical Framework and Methodology

5.1 Recapitulation of hypotheses and theory

Part I presented an analysis of diverse literatures on three scales, or levels. Each dealt with the role of information technology as a communication activity, and related this to concepts of participation and policy. Chapter 1 set out the concepts of a pluralistic framework for democracy and policy as processes which require wide and universal access to information and accountable forms of participation. When approached developmentally, these processes may also be described in terms of iterations and feedback loops. This aspect was related to the third leg of the theory stool assembled in this thesis: complexity theory applied to organisations and particularly the public sector. The mathematical foundations of this theory, developed initially for physical phenomena, have been applied to human systems as well. Figure 3 in Chapter 1 showed how Kiel (1994) has illustrated public sector time series data as patterns, or attractors, which show great diversity within clear boundaries.

The role of interactive technology was considered at the global, national and organisational levels, as discussed in Chapters 2, 3, and 4 respectively. These were linked to the values underpinning globalisation, public sector reform, and management theory. A set of hypotheses were presented about the role of information technology, some of which found support in subsequent chapters. This thesis enquires about the role of interactive technologies in governance, broadly conceived. As part of the enquiry, the end of Chapter 4 set out the information values which support democratic policy processes, and contrasted these with those of globalisation. A set of generic communication protocols further clarified how these values translate into information technology structures. A final hypothesis stated that at the organisational level, adoption of the democratic structures would be conducive to the full developmental participation which is a prerequisite for both democratic process and complex adaptive learning. While the communication protocols are intended to be general, within the scope of this thesis they can only be considered empirically at the organisational level.

Recapitulating from Chapter 1, the researcher proposed three theoretical extensions which link democratic participation with complexity theory. The first focuses on information technology as an explicit technique for re-pluralising the system, by adding large numbers of new actors to the time-series data flow. Provided appropriate protocols are applied, such as those suggested for organisational use of interactive technology, the possibility for wider input and democratic participation is increased. This, too, is an iterative process, and the adoption of protocols which enhance and facilitate multi-way participation and accountability was understood to be a political, rather than a simple or technical task. Just as the computerisation of empirical data led to discovery of entire new solutions to such problems as turbulence and chaotic behaviour (Gleick 1988, Waldrop 1994), so might the additional data points from thousands of non-elite actors lead to solutions for the problems of scale and complexity for democracy which troubled Dahl (1989).

The researcher’s second major extension of complexity theory to public administration is the hypothesis that the attractors for information technology form fractal patterns across scales. That is, there are identifiable self-similar patterns. Some support for this hypothesis emerged from the literature reviews, which found that the global tendency towards instrumental applications of information technology is repeated at the national and organisational levels. Globalising values were shown to inhibit full interactivity and responsibility, dampen complex learning and minimise democratic forms of participation. These dominant patterns were not universal, and at every level alternative attractors could be found. This was seen in the use of the Internet for both information sharing and activism, and some Australian government initiatives which encouraged citizen to citizen communication.

The researcher’s third extension of the theory is the centrality of values, as both ethics and desired outcomes, in shaping the uses for information technology at all levels. The literature on information technology often refers to values as key determiners of its use. This has already been postulated at the organisational level, without specific reference to information technology: ‘An organisation’s deepest order is found in management values’ (Kiel 1994: 218). The theory chapters provided support for this extension to all levels of technology use, by showing that the values driving globalisation are also those flowing through to shape public sector reform. These values flowed through to the agency level, where they impacted not just on individuals and internal issues, but on the agency’s ability to fulfil wider policy obligations. The values and the patterns at each level were identified as promoting linear, hierarchical world views and narrow efficiency approaches to the use of information technology, unsuited to solving the problems of today’s complex interdependent world.

Clearly, hypotheses relating to global issues can not be tested via a study at the organisational level. However, given the multiple levels addressed in the literature reviews, some support was found for more general hypotheses. The hypotheses that arose in each chapter are collected below in Table 5.1, along with a brief discussion of the sources of support. Hypotheses that can be compared with the empirical evidence of the four case studies will also be indicated.

Table 5.1



From Chapter 2:

Hypothesis 1:

The use of computerised technology will reflect the dominant actors and their values.

Support for this was seen in the literature on technology and society, in the characteristics of the convergent global media, telecommunications and computer industries, and in the less powerful actors who use these technologies to promote wider citizen deliberation. At the national level, the values of public sector reform were seen reflected in national policies on information technology, and at the organisational level, internal values and culture were also seen as major influences on technology applications.

Testable in an organisational case study.

Hypothesis 2:

Wherever they apply, interactive technologies will be a site of power struggle to control their communicative and information potential.

This was supported in the literature on the relation between technology and society, and was also seen at the global, national and organisational levels. The critical writers on technology and electronic democracy in particular indicated alternative views. Zuboff (1988) and Feenberg (1991), among others, indicated the political nature of computerisation at the organisational level.

Testable in an organisational case study.

Hypothesis 3:

Patterns for the use of interactive technologies in processes of governance will emerge at all levels.

Governance, as a system for the allocation of resources, legitimacy and power, was shown to be emerging in defacto forms through the globalisation of convergent technologies. At the national level, Henman’s (1996, 1997) work showed the role of computerisation in disciplining and governing clients of the Australian social security system. Within organisations, the literature on computer mediated communication demonstrated that information technology use reinforces existing structures.

Testable in an organisational case study.


Hypothesis 4:

The dominant actors and values determining the use of information technology on a global scale do not favour democratic process.

The features of globalisation, including the concentration of control and content, are well documented in relation to the convergent media. The analyses given by writers on electronic democracy and the public relations industry, and evidence of increasing commercialisation of communication technologies, support this hypothesis. Democracy as considered here requires universal access and developmental communication and participation.

This hypothesis cannot be tested at the organisational level. The Link study, which looked at a list with international content, could provide support for information society trends identified in Chapter 2.

Hypothesis 5:

The ways in which interactive technologies are used at different levels of application affect each other.

Relates to Hypotheses 4, 8 and 13. This is a key element in the fractal extension of complexity theory proposed here, and follows from consideration of information technology as part of a global system. It is supported by the analysis on the global, national and organisational levels, which revealed similar values and instrumental patterns.

Testable to a limited extent in an organisational case study.

From Chapter 3:

Hypothesis 6:

Public sector reform espouses the values of globalisation.

This arose from comparison of the values of globalisation in Chapter 2 with those of Chapter 3; supported by the literature.

Testable indirectly at the organisational level.

Hypothesis 7:

Public sector reform emphasises instrumental forms of communication.

The tendency of public sector reform to view citizens as clients and consumers, rather than participants, was shown in the analysis of this literature in Chapter 3. It will not be further considered in the case studies.

Hypothesis 8:

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

This is related to Hypothesis 5, and was seen in the analysis of Australian government information technology policies and programs, which were seen to focus increasingly on a service orientation, rather than on universal access and participation. This also will not be considered in the case studies, which focus on the organisational level.

From Chapter 4:

Hypothesis 9:

Interactive technology can simultaneously facilitate instrumental learning and democratic deskilling.

This tendency was seen in the literature, and refutes concepts that information technology by itself leads to power shifts in the workplace.

Testable to a limited extent in an organisational case study.

Hypothesis 10:

Industrial democracy requires full developmental participation.

This was supported by the literature on industrial democracy. This is taken as an assumption, given the definitions of both industrial democracy and participation used here.

Hypothesis 11:

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

This hypothesis embodies concepts about underlying organisational values, which were shown in the literature of Chapter 4 to be strong determiners of corporate culture and behaviour, including that relating to interactive technology.

Testable to a limited extent in an organisational case study.

Hypothesis 12:

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

This was shown indirectly in the literature on computer mediated communication, which showed that even advanced interactive technologies, such as groupware, can only empower within the limits of the agency culture. The communication protocols for information technology suggested at the end of Chapter 4 could be tested against case study technology structures and the degree of staff participation in internal decision making.

Testable in an organisational case study.

Hypothesis 13:

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

This was also shown in the literature of Chapter 4, and relates to the fractal theory of technology use, to Hypotheses 1 and 4 on the role of values and the links between levels, and to Hypotheses 7 and 8 on communication in public sector reform and national information technology policy.

Testable in an organisational case study.

Hypothesis 14:

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

This is implied by Hypothesis 4 on the links between scales. It is also implicit in theories of management and public administration.

Indirectly testable in an organisational case study.

Hypothesis 15:

Organisations which adopt the suggested structures as communication protocols (Table 4.1) will be more likely to show signs of both industrial democracy and complex, adaptive learning.

This is only partly indicated in the literature, through studies which suggest information technology performance indicators, for example. Further evidence for this could come from analysis of an agency which uses the suggested communication protocols for information technology, which, according to Hypothesis 13, may be difficult to find.

May be partially explored in an organisational case study.

5.2 Background to empirical component

If you have come to help,

you are wasting your time.

But if you have come

because your liberation is bound up with mine,

then let us work together.

Ernie Stringer, quoting Lilla Watson in his book Action Research: A Handbook for Practitioners (Sage 1996).

This study was partly motivated by the researcher’s professional involvement with new communication technologies in the public sector. Experiences with the use of interactive technologies to broaden the foundations for policy deliberation helped formulate the research question. At an intuitive level, it seemed that interactive technologies could contribute to democratic policy processes. The investigation of this possibility, at a time of vastly expanding communication potential and intense globalisation became the theoretical framework and hypotheses of Part I. While research can be thought of as problem setting, rather than problem solving (Wolcott 1990:31), this research seeks an active dialogue between these, through normative theory development. It asks how interactive technologies can be used both efficiently and democratically and what circumstances might facilitate this.

This research is ‘grounded’ in the experience and voices of informants and other evidence. The theory comes out of the data, rather than shaping it (Leedy, Newby and Ertmer 1997:163). Current discourses on public policy largely overlook the role of technology or industrial participation and the links between them. The current research finds they are intimately connected. The case studies in Aungles (1991) examined these aspects, but not in relation to internal policy processes. Pusey (1991) showed the impacts of value shift on policy, but did not unravel the complex interactions at the organisational and technological levels. This research is partly an update of these studies, but also an attempt to integrate by finding a diagnostic theoretical perspective. Thus, the specific hypotheses to be tested emerged from both the readings and the major case study as it progressed.

At the most fundamental level, the approach taken was phenomenological, rather than positivist, following the descriptions given in Maykut and Morehouse (1994). Neither the events, the informants or the researcher were independent of the circumstances. The world view embodied in the current research is one of mutual causality, complexity, interdependence between the knower and the known, and ever-changing perspectives, with a goal of understanding the meaning of events, for the persons being studied (Maykut and Morehouse 1994). The research was overtly normative in asserting the desirability of democratic policy processes and the contributions interactive technology might make. Long ago Spradley voiced the belief that social research without practical implications can no longer be justified (Spradley 1979:13). The researcher believes this requirement for social research to address current needs has intensified since then. One goal of this research is to give voice to informants’ articulation of those needs. Self (1993) demonstrated how a dominant public choice ideology can exclude alternative analyses. Awareness of the increasing and highly ideological role of risk minimisation strategies in public policy led to an another important methodological perspective. The lay-expert divide, as analysed by Wynne (1996) elucidates much of the underlying mistrust that pervades not just public response to modern institutions, but their internal workings. Wynne’s analysis searched for ‘more complex ways of conceiving the democratic possibilities of science’ (Wynne 1996:47), much as the current research searches for more democratic uses of information technology. Both require a profound and painful examination of the risks and mistrust which are now common in expert-lay relationships. The risk society transcends class logic, creating truly global risks from which not even the rich and powerful can escape (Wynne 1996). The researcher straddles this expert-lay divide, an informed observer-participant of the public sector ‘angst’ which has the inevitable quality of a Greek tragedy. It may require a partial outsider, from a discipline such as ‘communication’ to facilitate this examination: research on information technology, democracy, organisational change and public policy show little intersection elsewhere.

This chapter outlines the general methodology for the case studies. Section 5.3 offers a methodological critique of some recent public sector studies; Section 5.4 details the methodology of the Finance case study.

5.3 A methodological critique of recent public sector studies

This selective critique of several recent Australian public sector analyses seeks to reveal underlying assumptions that impact on methodology and thus findings. Matheson’s (1997) analysis of decision making in the Australian Public Service was based on the premise that decision making is based on either technical, economic or political rationality, concentrated at the lower, middle and upper echelons of the bureaucracy respectively. The perspective was theoretical, with data only provided for one example. Observations seemed drawn from executive level officers only. Much emphasis was placed on the classic Weberian view of bureaucracy, without acknowledging the huge changes which are rapidly rendering that framework obsolete. For example, no mention was made of the impact of the new workplace relations structures or competitive tendering and contracting on decision making. Matheson’s outline of the three premises for decision making had an abstract quality, with no example given, for example, of a technical decision. If, as he defined it, a technical decision is one dictated by the departmental line or established policy, this concept becomes even vaguer. He noted that the rise of managerialism and economic rationalism has diminished the ‘salience of distinctive departmental lines’. He found the result was a more favourable climate for policy innovation and greater priority on the public interest ‘at the expense of the sectional interests of departments and their clients’, but no examples were given. There was no mention of the impacts of globalisation or computerisation on decision making. His suggestions for sources of non-bureaucratic advice included consultants, academics, task forces and advisory boards. His model, therefore, retained decision making in the hands of elite actors. There was no call for research into actual events, such as the increasing corporate influences on policy.

Mulgan (1997) offered an analysis of public accountability which included scrutiny by agencies lacking direct hierarchical authority, such as the Ombudsman. He noted that public servants only have upwards accountability to superiors, but managers are not accountable to staff. The discussion did not include mention of the growing politicisation of the public sector, or the degree to which the public’s ability to ask ‘for an account’ is affected by issues such as funding for public interest groups, knowing what questions to ask, and public servants’ discretion regarding requests. Mulgan’s reiteration of the Westminster format, similar to the illustration in Figure 10 of Chapter 4, where accountability flows are only upwards or through other agencies, places boundaries around industrial democracy within the public sector. Aside from a few very public examples of Ministerial accountability and action, the discussion was mostly abstract, with few hints of the intricacies now faced by many public servants. The article was based on a sound understanding of the theory of accountability, but little indication of current practice or empirical evidence. Mulgan did not consider the arguments for more direct, lateral and downwards forms of accountability (Considine 1994:221, Aucoin 1991, Zimmerman 1995 respectively).

Gregory (1997) looked at attitudinal change in senior public servants in Wellington and Canberra, and found that recent reforms have had a greater impact in New Zealand. While offering the advantages of longitudinal and international comparative data, the methodology had strong limitations. The survey was conducted among senior executives only, the most politicised group. Gregory’s typology of public servants was not linked to any real life data. He admitted this was a heuristic device, a ‘blunt instrument’ that would best serve as a preliminary to in depth interviews. Without a connection to wider evidence, the findings were open to interpretation. For example, he found that Canberra bureaucrats are now less elitist than in the first survey (1986-87). However, one measure was that they were less inclined to agree with the proposition that citizens had too little say in Federal government policy-making. He acknowledged the ambiguity: either they think the public now has more say, or they now think it less important that they have a say. His elitism index was a rough measure of ‘democratic sensibilities’. Gregory’s findings contrast with those of the current research, which were based on discussions with officers at all levels, and did not impose a predetermined typology.

Spillane (1994) conducted a survey of functional uses of language by senior and middle Australian public sector managers. She noted that problems at work are often attributed to ‘poor communication’, and that growth and development require language to promote discussion and debate. Also building on previously established categories, Spillane asked nearly 300 respondents to indicate on a questionnaire how often they used expressive, signalling, descriptive, prescriptive and argumentative communications with their work colleagues, using a Likert scale. She found relatively low levels of expressive language, consistent with studies that show Australians to be generally less emotional and anxious than other groups, particularly at the management level. Relatively low levels for commanding (although higher for senior managers) were also consistent with studies (from the 1970s) showing Australian managers have an egalitarian attitude to work. Non-participatory assumptions are embedded in the methodology of this study. Asking informants to nominate their communication styles based on somewhat abstract and value-laden terms is questionable, especially with no attempt to verify results by asking subordinates about their perceptions of managers’ use of language. She implied, without current verification, that the Australian ethos somehow protects against the harsher consequences of hierarchical communications. This inhibited investigation of true communication patterns in the public sector workplace. Her approach also reinforced the assumption that managers are so unaccountable that their subordinates’ opinions need not be sought. Spillane also assumed stability, and thus did not explore the actual and changing communication environment.

The above four studies published in the Australian Journal of Public Administration shared a cushioned view of the public sector as a separate and stable organisation, one which follows Weberian rules and a linear framework. However, this assumption appears to have blocked these writers’ ability to look beyond tradition and seek current real life evidence of the changes which are affecting the public sector as a critical fulcrum of governance, and to address their importance. These studies did not acknowledge the role of information technology in communication, decision making or accountability. The research presented in Part I of this thesis, from many disciplines, indicates the impacts of technology on governments and organisations are profound. The current research relies on a triangulation of surveys, interviews, and internal documents, and assumes that the attitudes and opinions of officers at all levels are important for assessing the impact of current changes to their work environment.

5.4 Details of case study approach

The hypotheses which could be tested in a case study of organisational change, employee participation and interactive technology were presented at the start of this chapter. It was only possible to explore many of the hypotheses in the major case study. Therefore, this section focuses on the details of that methodology. A qualitative approach with open-ended discussion was considered more appropriate than quantitative evaluation or surveys alone. The rate of change within the public sector generally, and in the realm of information technology in particular, was very high during the period of the research: early 1996 to early 1998. These circumstances are well-suited to case study research. Yin (1989:13) has noted: ‘In general, case studies are the preferred strategy when ‘how’ or ‘why’ questions are being posed, when the investigator has little control over events, and when the focus is on a contemporary phenomenon within some real life context’. The case study method has also been described as the most appropriate to gathering the detailed information necessary to understand the nature of changes in the workplace and the motivations of management (Kitay and Lansbury 1997:7). Quantitative information was used where possible to confirm or complement other data.

Other reading both confirmed and helped shape the methodology as it evolved. The intersection of computing and telecommunications has been described as data-rich but theory-poor (Fulk 1993:409), and attempts to theorise within a framework that embraces the additional fields of public policy and organisational learning has been described as a sparse field (Heimler 1996). Mantovani (1994) sited evidence that natural data is necessary to study computer use, because it is deeply socially embedded. Fulk, Steinfield, Schmitz and Power (1987) also argued that natural settings are needed in studies of computer mediated communication. Steinfield (1986) called for ethnographic analyses of communication content in computer mediated communication, and discussed the advantages of using computer-generated data. The work of Boddy and Gunson (1996) was especially valuable for shaping the methodology. They looked at computer networking projects over six years and concluded that long term organisational research is the only way to obtain a realistic picture and detect trends with networks and employment. They also found that technology change and organisational change have become indistinguishable. This confirmed the validity of accepting evidence about non-technological issues, a trend that was present from the start in informants’ data.

Only two of the current case studies, however, examined the research question at the organisational level. A central assumption of this thesis is that technology has a role in decision making at several interrelated levels of magnitude. Thus, the research sought evidence from multiple structural levels, in keeping with the generic definitions chosen for both democratic and policy processes. Chapter 6, the largest case study, was at the organisational level, as was the case study of CSIRO. The chart of hypotheses in Section 5.1 indicated which of these could be tested in the organisational case studies. The study of the Link mailing list was primarily a study on the national level, but with input from international participants and issues. The Canberra Commons was a local initiative within one city-state. These last two case studies provide primarily indirect support for some of the hypotheses and the researcher’s theoretical perspective. All together, they are intended to provide evidence which contributes to awareness of and practical suggestions for the use of interactive technologies in democratic decision making at various levels of governance.

Site of study

Canberra was a logical choice for a public sector study. As the centre of national government, and as the home and workplace of the researcher, access was greatly facilitated. Personal contacts led to both the Finance and CSIRO case studies, and the researcher probably would not have known about Link except for professional contacts with government technology staff. Canberra is also where decisions on public policy are made, including those on information technology. Finally, the nature of public sector reforms for over a decade has been to devolve certain processes while retaining tight control from the centre. Use of resources, but not influence on policy, is devolved (Considine 1988). The possibility of studying internal processes and thereby identifying tensions between these and wider policy processes pointed to a study of the centre.

Choice of cases

The final choice of agencies was influenced by availability and personal contacts. Each agency had a distinct narrative about their state of change and use of technology. The similarities fell into recognisable patterns, although the details varied. This observation eventually found articulation through the application of complexity theory concepts, as elaborated in Part I. The researcher persevered with the Finance study even though access was difficult at times. Finance was a key player in both information technology outsourcing and new industrial relations arrangements. Their internal bulletin board system, the initial reason for referral to the agency, turned out to be a bellwether for organisational sensitivities, and therefore worthy of long-term tracking. CSIRO, on the other hand, offered a study of a national level, geographically diverse and highly technical organisation. It also provided access to a raw bulletin board data, but over a much briefer time span. The Link list was chosen because it discusses Australian Internet and telecommunications policy. This list does not operate within one agency, but is open to government, industry, the media, and academia. It offered an opportunity to observe and document electronic interactivity on these policy issues, and international influences. The last case study, the Canberra Commons, was quite different and the most ethnographic, as the researcher and a colleague initiated this experiment. It provided insights into how interactive technologies could develop and influence local events. The specific methodologies of the three minor case study methodologies are provided in Chapter 7.

Action research

This aspect of the methodology emerged towards the end of the first year. It became apparent that the researcher was not a totally objective observer of events in the major case study, but was, to a limited extent, working with key informants to achieve organisational goals. The basis for the collaboration was a belief in the value of staff participation in decision making and the positive role which a directed use of interactive technologies could play in this process. The methodology known variously as action research, participative research, research for people and cooperative inquiry, does not attempt to abstract research from results. Action research focuses on cooperative problem setting and solving. The people-oriented, problem solving and holistic goals placed these case studies in that area of ethnographic research.

Although such cooperative enquiry was part of the researcher’s intentions, it did not eventuate to any great extent. There were occasions when discussions with informants led to suggestions being taken up within the organisation, and the researcher contributed a draft communication strategy for the information management project in Finance, but such instances were rare. True action research in the public sector would require a much more formalised acknowledgment of how such interaction could benefit the organisation. The action research elements of the Canberra Commons and Link case studies were more direct, and are discussed in Chapter 7. In terms of the theoretical perspective developed in Part I, the researcher was part of the self-organisation which attracted some informants because of shared values and expectations about organisational behaviour. Those who did not laugh at the idea of industrial democracy were excited by it.

Ethnographic component

Pusey (1991) completed a major survey of executive public servants in the mid 1980s, which documented a shift from normative values and the demoralisation of the career service in response to economic rationalist approaches. Pusey also noted an alternative pattern, towards participation from citizens and management. The current research seeks to document the situation in the late 1990s and extend the analysis into the critical area of information technology. Pusey’s work has been described as ‘an outsider’s study’ (Hamburger and Power 1991), which placed undue emphasis on a class analysis. The current research presents more of an insider’s view, and is based on interviews with staff at all levels. No demographic data were collected.

Ideally, the researcher in an ethnographic study is a full member of the group studied. All the present case studies had an ethnographic component, although this was very limited in the CSIRO study. Ethnographic research requires a broad concept of culture as ‘the acquired knowledge that people use to interpret experience and generate social behavior’ (Spradley 1979:5). Many studies of change miss the full context (Wolcott 1990:33). The case studies were sensitive to the public sector culture and ethos during a period of intense change. The researcher was, and remains, a public servant living and working in Canberra, involved professionally with both policy processes and technology implementation, and subject to the same broad changes to the public sector. Canberra is a city where social and professional contacts and contexts often overlap. Information flows from unexpected quarters. There is much informal communication about agencies and managers. Thus, some of the most revealing comments were a result of serendipity. The population of Canberra (roughly 300,000) is compact enough to allow rapid circulation of news and gossip. Chance dinner companions might discuss the internal state of their agencies; a discussion at a hairdressing salon might reveal information about self-censorship within another agency. All these encounters helped to ‘ground’ the research, and allow the researcher to assert that the public sector case studies represent general trends.

The ethnographic element in the Finance study included quantitative surveys conducted on behalf of several executive staff and membership in the Information Management Project Team. Ethnographic approaches are frequently lumped together with other variations on qualitative research, such as naturalistic, descriptive, humanistic, or hermeneutic (Wolcott 1990:10). This approach also allowed for a more personal level of contact, which in some cases extended beyond the workplace. While intrinsically enjoyable, these relationships also provided a form of ‘insurance’ for the researcher, as the formal involvement in the department seemed tenuous at various stages. By pursuing multiple contacts, the researcher was able to go back to a sample of informants after two years and ask about the outcomes and overall direction of change. Several of these relationships continued after completion of the case studies. This was consistent with a definition of ethnographic research as ‘an analytical description of social scenes and groups that recreate for the reader the shared beliefs and practices…’ (Leedy, Newby and Ertmer 1997:157). For such a methodology, which seeks in depth understanding, an assembly of detail is essential. Unreturned calls, informants’ trend over time to request greater anonymity, unsolicited comments from strangers, meetings cancelled without notice, and subtle attitudinal shifts in informants over the period of acquaintance: all these become data. The research process also involved personal and pleasurable discovery of the differences between bureaucratic and academic culture, a valid element in the subsequent analysis. Without a recent background in the culture and practices of the public sector, the researcher’s attempts to communicate effectively with informants about departmental processes would have been problematic. A shared knowledge of bureaucratic workings, and particularly those of coordinating agencies, and familiarity with government technology use and implementation processes, was an important aid to both data collection and analysis.

Specific aspects of major case study

The Finance study extended over two years, from early 1996 to early 1998. Long-term organisational research presents many difficulties. At several points the researcher found blockages to further investigation, and considered abandoning the department. But good fortune allowed the study to continue, always leading into new and interesting areas. Clayton (1997) enumerated the many drawbacks and limitations of case study research, including dangers of informant, researcher or agency bias and lack of generalisability. The researcher followed Yin’s (1989) advice on how to avoid these pitfalls. Where possible, triangulation of data sources was sought. In-depth semi-structured interviews, attendance at meetings and on-site observations, and document study supplemented by external data such as media reports formed the core of the data collection. Three quantitative surveys supplemented the qualitative data.

The focus began and remained with the use of interactive technologies (primarily the desk top tools) in internal policy decisions. However, this focus was continually broadened by the informants to matters of more general corporate governance and ideology. In this sense, the theory developed here is truly grounded, as the evidence, initially collected almost in a theoretical vacuum, gradually and persistently shaped the interpretations. The hypotheses emerged gradually, fed by both the literature reviews and the case study evidence. While the focus was always on the interaction between the technology and democratic process, the specific propositions relating to this came out of the ethnographic involvement, rather than shaping it.

Research design

The research necessarily followed an emergent strategy, partly due to the instability of the department. The theoretical framework was not established prior to the investigation. Although a fine mapping of the research design was not possible, several basic concepts guided the planning from the outset. Following Yin (1989), these components were considered vital to meaningful results: relevance to the study questions; underlying propositions or assumptions; units of analysis; logic linking data to the propositions; and criteria for interpretation.

The design was guided by a definition of research as ‘a process through which we attempt to achieve systematically and with the support of data the answer to a question, the resolution of a problem, or a greater understanding of a phenomenon’ (Leedy, Newby and Ertmer 1997:5). It also drew on the concepts for design and analysis set forth in Maykut and Morehouse (1994). The research followed a ‘helical’ path, as the data continuously shaped each subsequent stage of the research. The principal research question queried the role of interactive technologies in democratic policy processes. This expanded into a set of questions which differed slightly for each case study. In Finance, the existing use of these technologies and the changes to both the organisation and the technological infrastructure led to quite specific areas of investigation. The information systems were, as one informant put it, ‘metaphorical mirrors of the organisation.’ The units of analysis were therefore sometimes aspects of the technology and sometimes organisational structures and groups. Each could be looked at in terms of the other. The evidence was then gathered and fitted together until a picture emerged of the shape and direction of that issue. The links between the data and the propositions were complex, and required a broad view of the cultural climate. Informants consistently placed their comments and circumstances within this wider context, making it clear that they did not view either the technological or the organisational processes in isolation from such umbrella issues as government reforms and software hegemony. These sorts of comments, often made as ‘asides’, pushed the grounding of the theory towards considerations of globalisation and public sector reform and their ideological links.

Informants and interview technique

More than 70 informants are quoted in the case study, from an initial base of more than 400 departmental staff. Some were consultants or had other professional relations with the department. The researcher attended meetings, communicated by email and telephone, and spent over 300 hours on site. Throughout most of 1997, the researcher had a temporary pass which allowed access to the building. Access to the desktop and intranet was provided intermittently by staff.

All informants were volunteers, many were interviewed more than once, and some offered additional unsolicited discussions over the telephone. All were assured of confidentiality, which meant that no information or views would have individual’s names associated with them. Some informants were also offered copies of the researcher’s conference papers setting out the emerging theoretical framework, and several commented on these. At every stage, validity checks from informants were important to help shape the emerging picture of the organisation and its technology systems (Clayton 1997). In addition to comments on individual sections, written and verbal comments on the full draft of the case study were also obtained from a number of informants in late 1998, several senior executives were sent copies of a preliminary article about the research (Geiselhart 1998a), and a copy of the final thesis was provided to the department.

Initially, most interviews were recorded, with informants’ permission. This was soon abandoned as too time consuming and cumbersome, due to the length of the interviews. Also, informal exchanges could not be captured on tape. Instead, notes were taken during the interviews. Informal exchanges were made note of immediately afterwards. All notes were transcribed within 24 hours, to form a chronology by date and informant. As the relationship with informants developed, the prior involvement of the researcher became the foundation upon which subsequent meetings were based. The researcher came to feel more accepted and part of the ebb and flow of the organisation. One informant teased that he would provide more information on a particular development later in the day, because ‘I have to make sure you come back’. In many cases, the interviews developed into discussions, as it was sometimes desirable for the researcher to offer informants possible explanations for comment (Spradley 1979:59). There was no doubt that often the informants were using the situation as an opportunity to engage in problem solving, with the researcher as sounding board. Total detachment was not possible for either researcher or informants.

Canberra remains, to a large extent, a ‘company town’, with many former Commonwealth and Australian Capital Territory employees now servicing the public sector in a commercial capacity. Shared personal values and the context of change contributed to a certain camaraderie, as well as a delicate sense of loss. This mood of ‘mourning’ was most poignantly expressed in a poem written by an officer at Finance. Repeatedly, even the most hard-pressed and ambitious officers left the researcher with a feeling that she was filling a role of part scribe, part counsellor, and part ‘Mother Confessor’ as sessions intended to last for 20 minutes stretched beyond an hour. This was a humbling experience, for with it came the responsibility to treat this material with confidence and sensitivity. There was a sense of recording a shift in the fabric of the public sector, much as Zuboff (1988) felt the need to document the changes which automation introduced to working life. The current research, while much more modest in scope, nonetheless sought to document the impact of the shift in public sector values at the personal and workplace level. This has not been part of the formal discourse surrounding these changes, a factor which itself became part of the theoretical analysis.

Choice of informants

Informants were sought out initially for their involvement with a particular aspect of the technology, including the intranet, networking, desk top, data bases and specific projects, and outsourcing. The web of discussion broadened, as informants advised the researcher ‘you should talk to X’. Over time, people were interviewed from other areas, including human resources, strategic planning, budget, enterprise bargaining and union representatives, internal teams or networks, consultants, and moderators of internal discussions or decision processes. Interviews were also sought with senior managers, with varying degrees of success. Most informants were at middle management levels, but a good sample were at the executive level and many were below senior officer level. People who were mentioned in a derogatory way were also sought out, to provide a balance of viewpoints and information. If someone said, ‘That dickhead - I wouldn’t feed him’, it was presumed there was a point of conflict between these officers (sometimes entire sections) that warranted further investigation. Informants with current, rather than past involvement were sought (Spradley 1979:48).

Presentation of the data

Comments were edited for clarity where necessary, and to maximise confidentiality. As the case study progressed, several officers became more nervous about possible identification as contributing informants, due to job insecurity. The researcher was also told that the secretary had demanded to know sources of negative feedback. Quotes were therefore identified by the date and by the level or role, as obliquely stated as possible.

Document analysis

As many internal documents as possible were collected and used as a basis for discussion and analysis. These included plans on human resource development, industrial democracy, strategic IT or information management plans, proposals for new projects, mud maps drawn by staff to explain structures, and less formal documents given to the researcher, including bulletin board postings. In addition, external documents affecting internal issues supplemented the data collection. These included plans relating to public sector reform IT in the Commonwealth and media reports on related matters. Some of these documents are included in the bibliography.

Data analysis

The raw interview and observational data, along with notes on documents, was assembled through a process of pattern recognition, aided by the theory to both establish logical connections and determine the categories for analysis (Yin 1989). Grouping under the broadest possible categories assisted this process. This was guided by advice that for qualitative work the greatest challenge is not the collection but the winnowing of material to retain only the essence (Wolcott 1990:18). The researcher decided to create the narrative and check the factual flow with informants before doing the final analysis. This is also one way to avoid confusions between analysis and correctness of description (Wolcott 1990:28). Thus, the final theoretical analysis was woven in after informants acknowledged the descriptive narrative as an accurate picture of their organisation. This was also a dialectic process which assisted in the final editing of the case study (Wolcott 1990:50). Once the hypotheses and communication protocols were established, it became possible to look back on the evidence and see if and how they were supported.

Limitations and constraints

A stage-setting indication of the limiting factors is important for all qualitative work (Wolcott 1990:30). Firstly, the study of Finance was largely limited to a picture of the organisation from the inside: external clients and stakeholders might have provided different views, but this was beyond the scope of the study. As already mentioned, continuity of access was a problem at various points in the study. Staff were often extremely busy, and discussion with the researcher was not a high priority. Overall, individual officers were supportive and cooperative to the extent that other demands on their time allowed; senior management was less accessible. The researcher, in turn, was constrained by other requirements of the thesis, including time and other costs involved in phone calls and trips to the department or other meeting points. High staff turnover also affected ongoing contact. Letters and phone calls requested and invited senior executive discussion and comment on preliminary findings. In retrospect, the openness of staff and the inattention of senior executive staff to this study may have been due to its informal source. The researcher hypothesises that a more official study, with the endorsement of the senior executive, would find less willingness from informants to express their views. This is part of the lay-expert divide discussed earlier, which has methodological implications for research into public sector institutions.

This research in relation to the existing literature

To the researcher’s knowledge, no other long term studies in the 1990s of technological and organisational change in the public sector have overtly linked these processes to industrial democracy. There are two related PhD studies. Morrigan (1997) looked at the Australian Taxation Office as a learning organisation from an insider perspective, based on qualitative data from the period preceding the current study. She found a relationship between the globalising environment and the ability of the organisation to accept new forms of learning, and impacts on the personal level from a managerial imposition of anti-intellectual, anti-emotional ‘controls on thinking’. While not specifically concerned with technology, Morrigan’s findings and approach are broadly consistent with the current research. Henman’s (1996) study of computerisation and public policy in the Department of Social Security was discussed in Chapter 3.