‘The rare scholars who are nomads-by-choice are essential to the intellectual welfare of the settled disciplines’. Benoit Mandelbrot, quoted in Gleich (1988:90).

Chapter 8 Conclusions and recommendations

8.1 Recapitulation

This chapter integrates the theoretical perspectives developed in Part I with the evidence from the case studies, and suggests specific directions for future action, research and policy. It starts with a summary of the findings in relation to the hypotheses and avenues for their further exploration. Section 8.2 considers the communication protocols in more detail, and the implications for democratic governance generally. Section 8.3 elaborates on these in relation to the Australian public sector. This draws on the researcher’s background and experience with policy and technology issues, which was refreshed by a return to this work at the end of the project. Sections 8.4 suggests future paths for research and theoretical exploration, and Section 8.5 provides concluding comments.

The contribution of this study is to offer a theoretical framework for electronic democracy which integrates all levels of its application. Concepts from complexity theory, in particular a fractal metaphor, have been used to suggest how interactive technologies could repluralise democratic processes. This model highlights that industrial democracy is a sine qua non of wider democracy. It has documented the decline of industrial democracy in the public sector, and analysed this in terms of the pervasive globalising values that establish non-participatory protocols for communication and technology use. It has shown that information technology policy in Australia largely reflects these globalising values, but with significant alternatives emerging. A number of innovative projects show how new technologies can make government more transparent, participatory and accountable, as well as providing cost-effective services and information. This thesis has also shown that the democratic study of information technology in government is both important and widely overlooked by public policy scholars. Likewise, this may be the only current long-term study in the Commonwealth public sector which examines the impacts of management practices, the role of computer-mediated communication, or the current meaning of industrial democracy. The major case study of this thesis looked at all these areas, and suggested they are strongly interrelated. It further suggested that these issues have implications for the wider accountabilities of public sector agencies. The question posed in Chapter 6 is reiterated: If these practices have such negative impacts on individuals and their agency, how can they benefit the nation? Informants’ use of totalitarian metaphors and warnings of subversion may be of concern in an agency which handles the nation’s finances.

This project began with a search for a particular kind of efficiency: of democratic process through the application of advanced communication technologies. The recent application of complexity to human systems, along with generic concepts of democratic policy processes, provided a theoretical perspective capable of spanning multiple levels of technology use and governance. Investigation at the departmental level led beyond technological structures to issues of organisational governance and values. Evidence from the major case study in particular indicated that these structures and values were dependent on the broad context of public sector reform. That context exerts a powerful influence on the framework for information technology design, purchase, staffing and use. The observed shift from developmental interactivity and internal participation towards restricted performance measures corresponded to executive adoption of an instrumental reform model. The case study findings overall reinforced the literature analysis, which identified similar patterns in information technology use at the global, national and organisational levels. The fractal metaphor has been applied to indicate the systemic interdependence of these patterns.

One implication of information technology as the quintessential global industry is that patterns of ownership and application converge with those at national and organisational levels. Chapter 2 described some outcomes for citizen information resulting from the globally convergent media, computing and telecommunications industries. It was argued that emerging patterns for the information society do not facilitate participation in the design, content and management of these structures. At the same time, the transformative uses of interactive technology for local and international activism and community networking demonstrated alternative patterns and values. Clift (1998) outlined a framework for politically neutral citizen participation centres which facilitate communication between groups and individuals (Figure 8, Chapter 2). Such structures could link, but also transcend scale.

Chapter 3 showed the dominance at the national level of neo-liberal reforms which embody non-participatory values towards policy participation. Australian public policy on information technology is oriented towards service delivery and business models. While these retain elements of social equity and democratisation through information provision, the wider context is an ironically narrow global economic perspective. There are few signs of Australia using information technology strategically in the policy process; nor are other OECD countries (Gualtieri 1998). However, examples were also given of innovative and exceptional interactive projects which counter the trend, at both state and national levels. These reflect actors and values that encourage less controlled forms of participation.

Chapter 4 proposed a parallel analysis at the organisational level, where technology use often becomes the setting for conflict between a controlling ‘mainframe’ mentality and the flexibility represented by ‘personal’ computers. Again, the dominant linear, hierarchical pattern emphasised short term efficiencies, and did not encourage the forms of ‘informating’ or complex learning consistent with participatory values. These preoccupations often preclude recognition of human networks’ basic needs for learning, reflection, and involvement. It was argued that only the spontaneous, unpredictable contributions of individuals engaging in open-ended, ‘strong’ interactivity can create the adaptive self-organisation now needed in an interdependent world. The implications of non-interactive reform values which flow through to public sector organisations were also shown to create dilemmas for ethical behaviour and wider accountabilities. The identification of dominant and minor patterns on different levels appeared to support the three key elements of the researcher’s theoretical position: interactive technologies as a potential pluralising force in complex systems, the interdependence of patterns emerging at all levels, and the determining role of values for shaping the information infrastructure at every level.

Evidence from the case studies

The case studies considered the research question from different perspectives. Each had at its core an analysis of computer-mediated communications in a policy context. The Forum case study looked at several months of postings to a management mailing list in CSIRO, a major government scientific and industry research agency. In many ways it complemented the Finance study, as the issues brought up by the scientists regarding the management approach to communications and participation were very similar.

The Link mailing list study showed mostly elite actors from a small set of backgrounds contributing to the discourse on Internet and telecommunications policy in Australia. At various points these interactions influenced policy decisions in ways which warrant closer documentation. The lack of collective power or intent and the rarefied nature of the deliberations limited these impacts in the short term, even though individuals often asserted democratic rather than globalising values. Link is undoubtedly a positive indicator of what could be achieved, given sufficient political will. It indicates self-organisation and an influential shadow culture. Similar networks exist on other Australian policy issues, and they are likely to expand, with positive impacts on accountability and transparency. Analysis of the theoretical and practical impacts of such networks and factors affecting them is a valid task for public policy research.

The Canberra Commons was an action research experiment. This web-based discussion data base encouraged broad input, and resulted in Australia’s first online debate between candidates in a state or territory election. There was some local awareness raising. Influenced by the visit of the founder of the Minnesota e-democracy project to Canberra several months earlier, it was also an example of self organisation via like-minded actors.

The major case study was a two year semi-ethnographic qualitative study of the Department of Finance and Administration, with a focus on their use of the desktop for computer-mediated communication. There was an inverse relationship between the use of the system to participate in internal policy and the degree of control asserted by senior management. The department took on many of the characteristics of a dysfunctional organisation, and many actors seeking to assert alternative values departed, as part of a substantial down-sizing and outsourcing. The evidence was unequivocal that industrial democracy diminished in the department over the time of study, and that this was reflected in the internal use of computer mediated communication. The overall analysis pointed strongly to the influence of globalised values as manifested by dominant internal actors. This study may provide unique documentation of a culture and value shift in the Australian public sector in the late 1990s, and its impacts on both individuals and the wider policy process.

Part I suggested a set of communication protocols associated with democratic and globalising values towards information. The theory chapters also developed a set of hypotheses about information technology and processes of governance. These hypotheses are presented again in Table 8.1, along with the degree to which they were present in the case studies. Because this process was one of grounded theory, the hypotheses reflect the evidence which gave rise to them. Several of the hypotheses find firm support in existing literatures; others require further investigation. The researcher’s extrapolation of these findings through the concepts of complexity theory and the proposed links between scales of technology use may be a previously unexplored area.






Table 8.1 Hypotheses and evidence from current research



Hypothesis 1:

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

Supported at all levels of analysis by the literature reviews and also by evidence from the major case study.

Some support from Forum and Link studies, and in a minor way from the Canberra Commons.

Hypothesis 2:

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

Supported at all levels of analysis by the literature reviews and also by evidence from the major case study.

Some support from Forum study, Link and Canberra Commons.

Further research on these processes in policy contexts is an appropriate area for public policy analysis.

Hypothesis 3:

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

Supported at all levels of analysis by the literature reviews and also by evidence from the major case study and Forum study.

Further study is required to document these patterns and direct them for democratic outcomes.

Hypothesis 4:

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

Supported by the literature analysis of Chapter 2, and from some of the postings to Link which refer to these global processes.

This aspect of globalisation has not yet been adequately analysed for its impact on other levels of governance.

Hypothesis 5:

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

Supported by the literature analysis of global, national and organisational technology use, which revealed similar values and patterns, and by limited evidence from major case study and Link, on the interplay between internal and external technology policies and decisions.

As with Hypothesis 4, this requires further evidence and study.

Hypothesis 6:

Public sector reform espouses the values of globalisation.

Supported by the literature. Indirectly seen in the major case study, where organisational reform followed wider public sector reform models, and to an extent in the content of Link.

Hypothesis 7:

Public sector reform emphasises instrumental forms of communication.

Supported by the literature on public sector reform cited in Chapter 3.

Indirectly supported in the major case study, to the extent that it was a complete example of public sector reform. Some support from content on Link.


Hypothesis 8:

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

This is related to Hypotheses 5 and 7, and was seen in the analysis of Australian government information technology policies and programs. Indirectly supported in the two organisational case studies, to the extent that they reflected national policy, and by postings to Link.

Remains to be fully considered in an Australian public policy context.

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.

The major case study showed that updated technology could co-exist with diminished participation.

Further study required.

Hypothesis 10:

Industrial democracy requires full developmental participation.

Supported by the literature on industrial democracy, illustrated in the negative by the major case study and Forum.

Requires further research in relation to the public sector and the role of interactive technologies in complex adaptive democratic systems.

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.

Shown in the culture shift of the major case study, and to a limited extent in the three minor case studies.

Requires further analysis in relation to the importance of values in determining systemic behaviours.

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, and illustrated in the major case study.

Requires further research, perhaps using the suggested communication protocols for information technology.

Hypothesis 13:

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

This was shown in the organisational literature review of Chapter 4, and supported by evidence from the major case study and Forum.

Requires further analysis and description in relation to the links between patterns of IT use at different levels.

Hypothesis 14:

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

This is implied by Hypothesis 5 on the links between scales, and is a major component of the proposed theoretical perspective.

Further study is required, perhaps as case study analysis of mid-term outcomes of departments undergoing substantial transformation, as in the major case study.


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.

This is also a major element in the proposed theoretical position, and is only partly indicated in the literature.

Indirectly supported by the early evidence from the major case study.

Further study required, perhaps through analysis of an agency which uses the proposed communication protocols for information technology. Hypothesis 13 suggests this may be difficult to find.

Because the above hypotheses grew out of both the literature reviews and the case studies, they are both grounded and limited by that background. Findings of the current research which have wide support in the literature include Hypothesis 2: interactive technologies as a site of struggle and Hypothesis 13: the tendency for information technology to be used instrumentally within organisations. However, even these may not have been fully considered in a public sector context. Thus, further case studies or analysis might contribute to increased awareness of information technology’s potential to transform agencies, and of the inherently political nature of such efforts. Hypothesis 14 is in many ways at the core of the present work, as it suggests a direct link between internal communication processes and external accountabilities. Confirmation or rejection of this hypothesis, and more detailed consideration of how the forms and structures of interactive technology affect external accountabilities, could be useful to many agencies seeking internal renewal. Hypothesis 15 is a distillation of the theoretical perspective proposed here. It makes explicit the relationship between complex learning, democracy, and the pluralistic inputs facilitated by interactive technologies. This hypothesis can only be explored by reference to underlying values, such as were consciously and overtly embedded in the approach to the major case study.

Other hypotheses, such as those relating to globalisation (1-5) or public sector reform (5-8), may be well understood within their relative disciplines, but existing approaches may not have established the connections between them. Hypothesis 5, which posits a link between uses of technology at different scales, is therefore a crucial point for exploration. The communication protocols for the democratic application of information technology may serve as a tool for further analysis across scales, and facilitate comparative research in diverse disciplines. For example, the extent to which the protocols apply in various sectors such as banking, international trade and intergovernmental communications may be an area for study by political scientists and economists. This could be compared with a different perspective through the analysis of the extent to which the protocols operate within, for example, the environmental activism community, scientific information exchange, or human rights networks.

While the focus of this research has been on the national and agency level, this thesis has also highlighted the need for analysis of the role of information technology in emerging forms of de facto global governance, particularly in relationship to Hypotheses 1-5. Such research on the ways transnational institutions use information technology could increase awareness of the non-neutral role of information technology in governance, and the need to shape it for democratic outcomes. Appendix A outlines some efforts to articulate citizens rights and responsibilities in a global information society, including one co-authored by the researcher. As the global ‘nervous system’ of information technology assumes more functions of governance, there are likely to be greater pressures from many quarters for input and management of this infrastructure to ensure accountability. The present research, while constructing a theory based on abstract concepts, has the intention of stimulating practical studies which document existing patterns of technology use, and relate them to democratic values.

At the national level within Australia, analysis of information technology policy has hardly begun from any perspective, except in relation to the field of telecommunications. The identification and measurement of levels of participation and pluralistic input to policy might provide a fruitful way approach to the issues raised by Hypotheses 5-9 in a national context.

The current research strongly reinforces the importance of industrial democracy and its links to wider governance. For both efficiency and accountability, public sector agencies require human and the technical systems which are consistent with the obligations of democratic governance.

Communication protocols

The evidence from the minor case studies was either not relevant (ie, Link, Canberra Commons) or inadequate (Forum) for a full picture of information structures. Therefore only the evidence from the major case study (Finance) is presented below in relation to the suggested communication protocols, based on Table 4.2. The overall shift in the direction of these computer systems during the period of study is important for the findings.

Table 8.2 Protocols for democratic information infrastructure/evidence from major case study


Evidence from major case study

Universal access

Universal access to desk top

Appropriate training

Training inadequate for developmental participation

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

Little availability of corporate minutes, decision processes, no internal FOI provisions

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

Limited public space available but not fully supported, no further development

Strong interactivity (open ended input)

Moves towards narrow inputs

Broadest and earliest possible participation in agenda setting and internal policy development

Participation in agenda setting and internal policy decreased

Minimisation of commercial in confidence protection

High levels of commercial in confidence protection

Freedom from direct or indirect censorship

Signs that surveillance and censorship were increasing

Maximisation of privacy protection

Possibility of anonymous communication removed

Equity in rights of transmission

Theoretically available, in practice upwards communication restricted to practical tasks

Provision for lateral and anonymous communication and ballots

Lateral communication widespread, ballots only for certified agreement

Availability of alternative forms and sources of information

Some availability of alternative views, information increasingly managed from above

Provision for localised information and dialogue

Local discussion possible, dialogue on non work specific tasks dampened.

Mechanisms for reflective deliberation about the information system

Little such provision

The above table illustrates that internal information protocols moved further from democratic patterns in the major case study. It is important to note that the technology potentially supported more participatory communication protocols; this was a political, not a technical issue. This thesis has asserted the essential developmental role of industrial democracy. The researcher argues that the public sector workplace is particularly vital for wider democratic process, because of the dual role of public servants as citizens and workers for the common wealth, and the traditional concept of government as social leader. The Finance case study documented the conflict between this traditional public sector role and more recent emerging values in relation to the use of internal computer systems and policy. Decisions about technology were made at the top, reflecting the globalising values of neo-liberal senior executives. This process was textualised and mainfested through the internal computer systems. The limited Forum study indicated that similar conflicts are being repeated in other public sector agencies. The brief and incomplete review of Australian information technology policy in Chapter 3 indicated that instrumental ‘service provision’ views prevail at the national level.

Overall, the evidence from the diverse literatures and the case studies contributed to the three principal theoretical propositions set out in Chapter 1. The first was a complex nonlinear systems perspective of electronic democracy: interactive technology as a potential re-pluralising agent, where non-elite actors can act on the micro level to influence communication patterns and practices. This concept offers a potentially rigorous and quantifiable dimension to the study of democracy. The history of complexity theory reveals that many of the underlying principles could only be uncovered by the multiple iterations and recording made possible by computerisation. Likewise, the full rationalisation or justification of democratic process may require it to become a more quantifiable area of study. Section 8.4 offers suggestions on how such analysis might proceed.

The researcher’s second extension of complexity theory to human systems is the identification of patterns which occur across scales. These were identified in the uses of information technology at the global, national, state and organisational levels. These may be considered fractal, because they are self-similar and interdependent. As described in Chapter 1, the resultant attractor is the union of all transformations of itself (Barnsley 1998). The features of the common pattern included a focus on the uses of information technology for short term economically defined outcomes, convergence of content and control, minimisation of participation, and the off-loading of issues and accountabilities outside the immediate system. Chapter 2 outlined other descriptions of the global information society as a complex system (Birrer 1997, Hearn, Mandeville and Anthony 1998). The researcher believes that the concept of fractal patterns and attractors in this context has not yet been explored beyond the suggestions in this thesis, either metaphorically or mathematically.

Every system is driven by forces, and the researcher’s third theoretical proposal is that the dominant actors’ values drive the system at all levels. Human systems differ from other physical or natural systems in their capacity for conscious direction and self-awareness. This feature, which inevitably reflects values, adds a critical dimension to the other two proposals. Recourse to values is difficult to examine methodologically, but may help explain the non-randomness of emerging patterns of behaviour for information technology in human governance. The model of policy used in this thesis has taken values as ‘titanic and ubiquitous’ (Considine 1994:48-49). Kiel’s analysis of government agencies as complex systems found ‘an organisation’s deepest order is found in management values’(1994:218). This thesis has indicated a similarly powerful role for values in the uses of information technology, and identified a bifurcation between democratic information values and those driving the global system. These were presented in Table 4.1, and are restated below:

Table 8.3 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 primarily to assist technical specifications

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

These values are not dichotomous, but rather part of a continuum. By postulating their end points in relation to particular structures for the application of information technology, the researcher suggests that the abstract quality of values can be made more explicit. If these structures, in the general form proposed above, can apply at any level of governance, then they offer a path towards the assertion of democratic patterns. These more practical implications are considered in the next section.



8.2 Implications for information technology in governance

Democracy and policy as communication protocols

This thesis has set the problem of democracy within a global context, and considers the uses of information technology as a challenge for the information society. It has also enquired what the common features of democratic governance in an information age might be across all levels. Democratic process and policy development, as considered in this research, may be considered communication protocols. As such, their design specifications could embody the criteria for democracy and public policy as learning, participatory processes. The communication protocols for the uses of information technology suggested in Table 8.2 would facilitate, but not guarantee, more participatory processes in systems using them. Like the protocols for the Internet, they are generic specifications that can be documented, implemented, monitored, and repaired when they break down. The suggested underlying importance of values in all stages of information technology systems leads to recognition that communication systems will be the site of on-going struggle for both information and meaning. These struggles can be self-renewing, as proposed by the application of complexity theory to these systems. The conflict arising from communication struggle can be a source of diversity, innovation and problem solving, or it can heighten the gap between technology and democracy, by suppressing feedback. Thus, the provision of an iterative, reflective capacity on the system itself was seen as an essential element in the protocols. The translation of democratic principles into technical systems can never be complete, just as the work of building democratic structures can never be complete. While the democratic application of information technology is not primarily a technical issue, it has been argued here that some technical structures favour democratic process.

In the previous section Table 8.2 considered the suggested protocols in relation to the evidence from the major case study, and found that they were often not observed. In fact, structures moved further from these protocols during the period of study, reinforcing the evidence of a shift towards globalising values. The proposed protocols are briefly considered again below, this time with suggestions relevant to their implementation at the national and organisational levels, and indications of some useful existing models. It is not possible here to provide a detailed extrapolation to the state, global or community levels. Nor is it suggested that these are the definitive expressions of such protocols. It is rather argued that implementation of these or similar structures can have a democratising impact, provided such impact is consensually desired.

Universal access: Thisimplies extension to data networks of the Australian Universal Service Obligation which has ensured equity in access to ordinary telephone services, particularly in rural areas. Progress is currently being made on this issue. The Community Information Network, discussed in Chapter 3, attempted to provide wide access to networked services via free public terminals. The Commonwealth Information Centre pilot, which commenced in late 1998 in Tasmania, may be an indication of an emerging model for addressing access issues via a high technology ‘top end’ database complemented by a ‘no technology’ human interface. This initiative may offer both future improvements for citizen’s information access, via the database direct, and additional cost savings as need for the face to face ‘safety net’ diminishes. It is important that such projects receive adequate support to reach their potential, and that they be studied as possible best practice models. For organisations universal access implies all staff have access to a personal computer and internal computerised systems.

Appropriate training: Access without training is of limited use. Queensland Women’s Infolink offers Internet training as well as public access. Within organisations, decisions about training can be used to limit access to the developmental potential of the system.

Transparency of information, including feedback and agenda setting, strong freedom of information provisions: This remains a major obstacle to democratic governance. Much progress has been made in the transparency of information about government services and in the provision of draft documents, although suppression of information remains common.Transparency of policy processes and openness to participation is much more difficult, both conceptually and technically. Freedom of Information within organisations is virtually non-existent, due to the weak interpretation of industrial democracy and the underlying belief that organisations do not constitute systems of governance. Organisational transparency could take the form of ‘open book’ management, and posting of minutes from executive level meetings, complemented by anonymous ballots on issues of organisational importance, 360 degree assessment, and internal presentation of the results. In a public service context, opaque ‘silos’ of activity, secrecy of performance agreements and pay, and of outsourcing contracts, undermines public accountability and encourages unhealthy undercurrents. Openness in this area would partly address the need for greater lateral and downwards accountability.

Deliberate creation and maintenance of a public space for communication, protected from commercial pressures: Only a few national information technology initiatives, such as EdNA and ACN, as discussed in Chapter 3, have such a public space. If combined with the provision for lateral communication between citizens and their employees in public sector agencies, as was seen in the Queensland feminist project, greater consensus and trust among policy players might result. Within organisations, such functions are commonly served by bulletin boards and news groups, but are often subject to informal censorship.

Strong interactivity (open ended input): this is more difficult to specify, as it involves the scope, timing and mechanism for participation. Draft documents which invite comments and make those available to all others display a form of strong interactivity, but if the document reflects decisions already taken irreversibly, or if the invitation is only seen by an elite few, then input is limited. The specific mechanisms for strong interactivity are heavily context dependent. The development of a national strategy by the National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE) demonstrated this form of strong interactivity, as all submissions were available on the web site, and NOIE provided a public response to them. The final strategy took these comments into account, and reflected a more socially oriented perspective.

Broadest and earliest possible participation in agenda setting and policy development: This follows from a recommendation of the Information Management Steering Committee report (1997). These measures could apply at every stage of the policy process, from gathering the information that indicates a policy issue exists, through to the decisions about who the major interest groups are, and eventual evaluation. Views of all those involved could be sought, including less senior bureaucrats and front-line service delivery staff. For the foreseeable future, diverse media need to be applied to this area. Within organisations, greater internal transparency would facilitate this.

Minimisation of commercial in confidence protection: This is likely to become an area for controversy and litigation as outsourcing increases. Procedures in other countries, such as the United States, could be used to implement more open contracts in Australia. Such measures could then flow through to the agency level. Arguably, part of the trade-off of contracting public services to the private sector is a requirement for greater openness about relations with the contracted agency.

Freedom from direct or indirect censorship: This is a major area of dispute over Internet content, and an important area for public debate. As of mid-1999, Australia implementing Internet censorship. Within organisations, self-censorship on internal networks largely reflects internal culture, as seen in the major case study.

Maximisation of privacy protection: Another key area for the emerging information society, manifested in many aspects of national and commercial transactions. Freedom from workplace surveillance is one organisational correlate. It is beyond the scope of this thesis to consider this complex topic and the many ramifications for democratic process.

Equity in rights of transmission: This can be ensured through pricing mechanisms that do not favour downwards transmission or bandwidth. Currently equity in rights of transmission is widespread on the Internet, and is seen, for example, in unmoderated mailing lists and low-cost home made Web pages. Within organisations, it means minimising one way communications from management, in favour of dialogue.

Provision for lateral and anonymous communication and ballots: Lateral communications between citizens and agency officials were discussed in relation to public space above. Anonymous ballots are familiar elements in representative democracy. However, they are narrowly applied, and rarely within a policy context. These measures are rare applied to non-trivial issues within organisations.

Alternative forms of information available: This is currently a feature of the Internet, but much less so in the mainstream media. It can be facilitated by maintenance of public space in emerging communication channels. At the organisational level, this is related to the provision of bulletin boards and freedom from censorship. At every level, alternative information is associated with the ‘messiness’ of democracy which accompanies open debate and accommodates extreme views.

Provision for localised information and dialogue: This is seen in community networks, and local mass media where successful. Localised can mean geographic or interest-based, as with EdNA and ACN. It is more likely to occur at the organisational level when the shadow culture is encouraged to self-organise in ways which encourage the development of internal social capital.

Mechanisms for reflective deliberation about the information system: This is the culmination of the other protocols, and the ultimate expression of full interactivity. Complex learning occurs when the ‘lid is lifted’ and attention is allowed to deviate from purely instrumental obligations. Systems at any level which observe many of the other protocols may be most likely to have such reflective mechanisms. In a minor way, requests for feedback on web sites illustrate the iterative possibilities of electronic systems. Serious research into the effectiveness of government systems in provision of services and meeting client needs also demonstrates this commitment to reflection, but rarely ventures into the highly politicised area of policy development.

The above discussion reinforces the interdependence of the protocols. Adoption of the advocated protocols depends at least as much on political as on technical skill and intent. Likewise, the protocols indicate that levels of application cannot be fully separated. Application of greater transparency at the agency level, for example, may well influence those participants to adopt a more open view towards releasing information beyond agency boundaries. In various ways, these protocols or their variations are already sites of struggle by relevant policy actors at all levels. Their articulation here as part of a theoretical framework for democratic policy development may assist those who are already seeking to implement them. Appendix A summarises other attempts to express the specifications for a democratic information infrastructure.


The suggested features are in principle independent of scale and technology, and they are not new concepts. They are unified here by a theoretical framework which proposes that the various applications are linked through the concept of governance, and that efforts at one level affect all others. The richness of this model is that lessons learned at one level can be applied elsewhere. Successful examples, such as the Minnesota e-democracy project, could be used to argue for wider application of these principles. Their precise application would vary according to circumstances and level. Within organisations, for example, issues of access, while not trivial, shrink in complexity relative to the community level.

This model also suggests that application of the protocols may be easier at some levels than others. Local government is a promising level for implementing greater transparency, access to interactivity, and accountability. It offers an elected structure which recognises democratic process, issues are relatively containable and identifiable, mobilisation of public support for greater openness and deliberation is feasible, and benefits can be more easily assessed. Productive examples of initiatives in this area are already available, and can be studied and extended. The limited success of the Canberra Commons, compared to a national experiment later in the year, suggests the local community level as a feasible area for further experimentation.

As noted above, electronic availability of responses to draft policy documents is gradually becoming more common. However, without provision for formal accountability this transparency has little practical impact. Thus, measurement of responses, and rigour in ensuring that they survey the complete range of stakeholders, is equally important. This would impose a level of scientific accuracy on policy procedures which equals that expected, for example, in market research or polling studies. It would also partly address the tendency of pluralistic, but control oriented political systems to make decisions based on inadequate or unaccountable data (Stacey 1996:399). Such measures are not part of the information infrastructure as such, but part of its support mechanisms within the policy process.

Globally, the need for transparency is much greater. Negotiations closed to citizen scrutiny, such as those conducted through such agencies as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, demonstrate the limitations of representative governments in an age of transnational power. Internet activism has a role to play in this arena, along with formal processes to institutionalise intellectual rights which complement previously established civil, political and social rights (Moore 1998). Expanding information access to countries and citizens that are currently not able to participate in global dialogue and information sharing is a critical task.

8.3 Specific recommendations for Australia

While this thesis has been set within a global perspective, it has concluded that structures and decisions at every level, particularly the local and workplace, contribute to the overall potential for electronic democracy to emerge as a feature of the information age. The emphasis has been on the Australian public sector, where the researcher’s primary experience lies. The following suggestions reflect this experience, which was renewed in time to inform this section, as noted above. An observation consistent with the theoretical perspective developed in this thesis is that the levels of insight and understanding of the potential for interactive technologies to enhance democratic process are far greater among officers working in these areas than is apparent from formal policy documents and official stances. The values driving the hierarchical structures operate to dampen these initiatives. Even so, there are many possible ways that public sector uses of information technology can move towards the proposed protocols. The areas suggested below, while not comprehensive, are offered as avenues for further documentation, research and experimentation.

Outsourcing and corporate governance

Control of the technology has arguably become an element in all corporate governance, and is therefore of increasing importance for wider government accountability. A high priority is making technology (and other) outsourcing contracts available not just to internal staff, but also to the public. The maintenance of sufficient internal technical and legal expertise to monitor these contracts, and provision of adequate transparency measures to allow public scrutiny of their progress, could contribute to long term quality assurance of outcomes. Effectiveness of outsourcing arrangements from cost-effectiveness perspectives is already an area of dispute; on-going study of this area in terms of democratic accountability is a more difficult, but equally important exercise.

A related question is the degree of industrial democracy within the corporations that provide information technology, as they become effectively extensions of government. Their obligations for human resource best practice, as well as for transparency and accountability, are arguably commensurate with this role and with the size of their contracts.

Outsourcing of information technology and the computerisation of the policy process raise issues related to corporate governance. Outsourcing of some functions, such as information technology and human resource management, leads to a recentralisation of these functions in the hands of the corporations whose resources can dwarf that of the agency. The implications of this for overall policy direction regarding these functions was considered in Chapter 3. These issues have not yet been widely recognised as public policy and political concerns. The current environment works against stronger assertion of industrial democracy principles. Thus, inclusion of specific reference to internal and program delivery computer systems and contracting arrangements as areas for staff participation and information may not currently be a high priority for union or staff negotiation. Wider ventilation and discussion of public accountability in these matters would assist in building necessary public support for such measures. At least one Australian department has denied union access to its internal bulletin board system.Acceptable use policies which recognise the rights of staff to communicate with each other about matters of corporate governance would help address this.

Electronic access to the policy process

The electronic democracy recommendations of the Information Management Steering Committee, discussed in Chapter 3, have yet to be broadly implemented and their progress monitored. The final report only called for a ‘watching brief’ on these issues. However, formal experimentation and evaluation of wider and earlier input to policy issues via electronic networks would provide valuable feedback for improving the policy process. This would not be very meaningful without cost-effective access by a community skilled in the use of these technologies, and the efforts across government to improve access and skills, including those of the National Office for the Information Economy and the Office of Government Online are key areas for public policy observation and analysis. This could be encouraged by input from agencies with high levels of interaction with community groups and non-government organisations. Groups such as the National Women’s Justice Coalition recognise the importance of technology in capacity building for effective liaison with government.

Within this context, there is scope for projects which track and evaluate outcomes using different forms of consultation and interactive technologies, including online focus groups, discussion lists for longer term developmental agendas, and other methods such as the Delphi technique. A broad project which evaluates the entire policy process, documents the groups which contribute, and how this differs from existing methods of consultation would be one approach. Such research would need to be sufficiently long-term to track the policy outcomes. It could involve careful measurement of the costs and benefits of various forms of consultation and policy development. Such data could be useful in attempts to apply the cost-effective techniques of electronic commerce to policy processes. Existing models for the rigorous application of business analysis techniques to social marketing and communication are available in the area of integrated marketing, but probably have not been applied to the policy process itself.

Practical steps to make the policy process more accessible include collecting documents available for comment in one site, under the federal entry point, as in New Zealand, and a more open approach to providing information about emerging issues for policy consideration. This approach can, and in some cases has been, taken up by individual agencies. Electronic feedback is not expensive, and it may be argued that the collecting and summarising of this information is a cost-effective exercise in risk management. There is much leeway in the area of consultation, long before a proposal becomes a Cabinet submission subject to great secrecy. The factors which inhibit bureaucrats from such openness might be researched and analysed with a view to improving the outcomes of these processes.

Information management

The full scope of issues associated with information management in government may not yet be fully understood, particularly in relation to the delicate interplay between internal communication practices and external accountabilities. In the major case study of this research, focus on this area was uneven, and perhaps inadequately understood at the highest levels. Continued and expanded sharing of experiences and guidelines, as well as examples of successes and failures, can expand best practice in information management. Effective risk management may require agencies to embrace greater openness to the public in the interests of protecting their agencies and avoiding major liabilities in the event of systemic failures, although this might appear counter-intuitive to many public sector managers. Promotion and adoption of the nonlinear paradigm in public administration, as advocated by Kiel (1994), and recognition of the role of information technology in complex accountability processes, may help overcome these hesitancies.

Again on the practical level, there is limited provision for public servants involved in electronic information activities to collaborate and exchange information with each other. Several informal groups exist, mostly in specialist technical areas such as archiving and metadata. However, it is not easy for non-technical officers to access and participate meaningfully in discussions about the general direction of government information technology activities and policy. This diminishes the possibilities of innovation from, for example, the researcher’s public affairs perspective, but also from those policy officers who are receptive to concepts of greater transparency and information provision.

Transparency of information systems

In addition to contract issues, transparency of information technology would include the opening of public archives, citizen access to modelling software, and making databases available to organisations which are part of wider social networks, such as environmental groups (Schartum 1998). These computerised systems codify and interpret legislation which deliver policy, as Henman (1996) found in the Department of Social Security. They also highlight the need for documentation and deliberation about values embedded in social modelling, and a collective rather than individualised approach to information dissemination. The protocols suggested here provide support for the argument that all systems affecting the public should be available to them, not just the data contained within them or the outcomes of the simulations (Schartum 1998). Such a transparent approach has been proposed for a forum on quantitative analyses and modelling of Australian taxation.

Lateral communications

Ethical guidelines for public servants already include the theoretical right to participate in public discussion, with certain provisos. However, there is widespread hesitation, particularly in electronic fora. This is an area which challenges existing boundaries and has no doubt been subject to legal clarification at some point. Explicit consideration of these issues from a workplace relations perspective might eventually lead to reconsideration of the limitations of vertical accountability. Greater openness of internal government activities and more lateral communication between bureaucracy and citizens might improve outcomes without endangering national security.

Within organisations, individuals inevitably exploit technologies to circumvent bureaucratic process. A simple example is the use of email to bypass the hierarchical clearing process; the informal nature of this technology encourages experimentation. The manager of the teams in the major case study showed interest in evaluating and developing the effectiveness of organisational communications. Evaluation of computer-mediated communications in the Australian public sector is rare, and often conducted by technical specialists who do not elicit qualitative data or information about impacts on organisational effectiveness. Applications on internal computer systems, such as groupware, bulletin boards and mailing lists, could become part of evaluation processes. They automatically create the streams of data which may contain the answers management seeks. This was evident to a limited extent in the Forum case study.

Analysis of information technology policy

It is unlikely that a comprehensive survey of Australian information technology policy from a social participation perspective has been completed. The brief survey of Chapter 3 was preliminary only. Such a survey could be useful to scholars and public officials interested in privacy, access and equity, efficiency, usage, social marketing, as well as participation. Evaluation of specific projects such as Australia’s Cultural Network is often neglected or kept confidential. Greater research focus on such projects could help raise awareness of their social role and potential, as well as increasing dialogue between scholars and public administrators about the importance of these technologies in wider governance issues. Articulation of possible emerging models which address access and equity issues, as indicated above, may provide valuable benchmarks for broadening the framework of technology applications to meet citizen needs.

Documentation of changes to public sector culture and provision

Another approach to the role of technology in systems of governance might be to study the language of the public sector and technology. It would be of interest to several disciplines, including political science, sociology, and communication, as well as public administration, if it could be verified that the term democracy has now become almost anachronistic. Indeed, it would be useful to confirm whether this perception is widespread. In Australia the term ‘industrial democracy’ is no longer widely used, and has given way to the more general term ‘workplace relations’. The increase in the use of the term ‘governance’ may indicate acquiescence to forms of authority not associated with voting equality or downwards accountability towards the governed. Certainly the language and rhetoric of performance assessment currently prevalent in the public sector emphasise individual negotiation and communication skills, with a near total omission of awareness or attention to collective or systemic issues. The substitution of marketing terms for service, clients and users in place of citizen, often in association with technological solutions, was discussed in Chapter 3. The term ‘interactive’ is often applied to close-ended, weak forms of interactivity, which do not permit deliberation or communication with other citizens. Consultation on government policy may have acquired a more narrow meaning which excludes all but a select group of ‘stakeholders’ from industry and other sectors. Changing usage, tracked over a spread of both time and applications, may reveal interesting trends.

Likewise, study of changing public institutions and their relation to new technologies is vital. In particular, the role of the public library is linked to both government reform and technological innovation. Identification of institutions and practices that deliver socially supported outcomes is critical, and the public library system stands out for encompassing professional expertise, open access, great equity, advanced technology adoption, and community-based structures. Libraries are logical places to extend citizen access (Moore 1998) and librarians are well-placed to offer democratic solutions. They show high levels of awareness of access and equity issues in an information society and how they might most efficiently be bridged (for example, Missingham 1997, Broadbent 1997). Libraries have also been seen as centres for community development. On the other hand, threats to the integrity or capacity of this system are cause for concern (Barnes 1998). This is another area where specific long term study, as well as the assembly of a considerable wealth of diverse detail, can provide a useful picture of the levels of real worth to community processes, extent of contribution to the supportive educational functions which underlie policy participation, and public expectations in relation to these.

The role of public broadcasting and equity in telecommunications has been a more popular area of study than government use of information technology. The overlap, notably in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s use of the Internet as a complement to its broadcasting activities, provides another area for exploration of impacts on public deliberation.

8.4 Further research and theoretical explorations

The traditional model of Westminster parliamentary process embodies linear chains of responsibility and accountability. Rethinking this for our more complex and interdependent world is a key challenge for globalised forms of democracy, as outlined in Chapter 1. Multiple issues surrounding the role of information technology in governance at all levels have been largely overlooked by public policy research. It may be productive to view these issues as part of wider deliberation about the changes to governance that convergence on many levels implies. Professional public sector ethics and administrative accountability are perennial issues. This thesis has argued that a properly accountable policy process which is open to the community, as called for by Uhr (1990:15), would make use of information technology in innovative and cost-effective ways. In a broader context, this thesis proposes a set of concepts and evidence which other scholars may find useful for future work in the areas of democracy and globalisation, electronic democracy, public sector reform, computer-mediated communication, organisational change, and complexity in human systems.

There is scope for information technology professionals to take a more active interest in the social impacts of their work. This is currently a marginalised area. A small number of individual computer journalists follow specific social threads. In general, media coverage of social implications of information technology is scant. Similarly, books on the social or democratic implications of the emerging information society occupy a tiny corner of available bookshelves covering computers. There is little academic or public discussion of the increasing role of computerisation in government, as discussed in Chapter 3.

This thesis has proposed that the concepts of complexity theory can be applied to the democratic process, but has not offered mathematical structures to support this. As indicated in Chapter 1, Kiel (1994) has mapped the attractors for public sector time series data, for specific administrative tasks. It is likely that the more difficult mathematical modelling of policy processes has not yet been attempted. Efforts to apply mathematical and scientific concepts to human systems are often rightly criticised, as providing mere metaphors and analogies. The researcher argues that such conceptualisations are necessary preconditions for more rigorous exploration. Chaos and complexity theory was first applied to refractory physical disciplines such as meteorology and fluid dynamics (Gleick 1988). Only later did it reach into organisational theory. Because all rules and regulations that are embodied in existing computer programs are ultimately interpretations of principles, similar techniques might apply to modelling organisational change using different parameters to measure communication patterns, access, outcomes, etc. This might be in the form of simulations, variations of which are already being applied to social and systemic problems (Senge 1992, Zimmerman 1995). The range of sophisticated methodologies available such as fuzzy logic, data mining and neural networks, and the diverse areas of their application, suggests that modelling for democratic process would not be beyond the technical scope of today’s computer science. The process of defining what such modelling would look for, and how these findings would best be used, could at the very least be a useful exercise in value clarification. Measurement of the identified variables and the relationships between them, such as organisational openness, feedback and transparency, could provide maps of possible future states of the organisational, or national, system. Similar exercises conducted on environmental issues have little predictive value but function as a focus for priority setting. They can indicate attractors to be avoided or pursued. Likewise, policy modelling implicitly indicates how values will be manifested. Complexity theory shows that infinitely complex behaviour can be generated from very simple equations. Human behaviour, too, may reflect quite simple underlying propositions. Simple principles, such as ‘share information’ or ‘conceal data if possible’ might create whole different universes of behaviour, as seen in the analysis of the tit for tat solution to the prisoner’s dilemma (Waldrop 1994). Discovery of these assumptions, and exploration of how they model complex behaviour, would be an important contribution to the organisational literature.

At the same time, it is necessary to avoid a pre-occupation with technical approaches which further distance social research from user needs (Grove White 1996). Such attempts at applying mathematic rigour may be inappropriate, if not undertaken in ways which challenge forms of expert knowledge and find ways to validate local, personal experience, in the workplace as in the wider community. Modelling of the policy process, therefore, would need to remain in the world of practical issues. Simulation exercises have been used successfully to model possible organisational and environmental options and to increase lay understanding of complex scientific issues.

Directions for future research cannot be seen as totally separate from theoretical explorations. Simple projects such as the Canberra Commons can easy be derailed due to problems of scaling up technology systems. The scaling of technology mediated interactions is a profound challenge (Schrage 1998:36), and the evidence presented in this thesis of the links between scales may assist that process. The importance of actual trials and experiments in real communities of actors cannot be overestimated. As well as electronic democracy trials, other projects related to democratic goals where information technology can assist include community-based researchand civic journalism. Examples where approximations of the suggested protocols have been put in place (or variations of them) are also potential areas for study in relation to Hypothesis 15, which predicts that adoption of these protocols would lead to higher levels of industrial democracy and complex learning, qualitatively (or even quantitatively) assessed.

The major case study found human resource practices and assumptions were important factors in determining technology use within that organisation (Figure 6, Chapter 2). The interplay between organisational efficiency and communication practices, and the role of technology in both, is an area for human resources professionals to address as part of their research and reporting activities. The present study may be the only current research on computer-mediated communications in an Australian public sector agency.

Other, more public forms of experimentation and activism using new communication technologies are also fertile ground for study. The Link case study of Chapter 7.1 may be the first study of a public Australian list from a participatory policy perspective. Helping non-profit and community organisations to use technology effectively has been described as an urgent task for the intellectual reinvention of democratic culture (Bollier 1997). Appendix A presents several writers’ practical suggestions for achieving this, consistent with the proposed communication protocols. These may assist activists and researchers with social goals.

8.5 Concluding comments

Only in the past decade have serious attempts been made to describe human systems using concepts from complexity theory. Complexity theory in the physical sciences is only about a generation old. The explicit recognition that nonlinear systems in public sector agencies can express a democratic ethic (Kiel 1994) is an even more recent development. The researcher’s hypothesis that information technology can enhance the pluralising and creative potential of human systems is a logical extension of this work. Whether or not a mathematical basis for such models can be established, this thesis has offered a theoretical framework for the conceptualisation of electronic democracy. This can be productively explored through the suggested communication protocols. The genesis for this research came from experiences in a public sector agency where values towards public information and new technologies intersected with that agency’s policy development role. These strands were not found to fit comfortably within the disciplines of either information technology or public policy; but they found support within the embracing field of communication. Inevitably, the recommendations arising from this research are broad and integrative. They are overtly intended to span the boundaries of several areas which may not be immediately receptive to their suggestions, or even find them comprehensible. This research will have accomplished its purpose if dialogue ensues.

The position expressed by Kiel (1994) is consistent with the concept that there are particular communication protocols for the uses of information and information technology which are conducive to promoting creative, diverse inputs. Such pluralism is necessary for the renewal and reaffirmation of democratic process in today’s complex world and interdependent world. The projects outlined in this thesis may be the only current work being done on electronic democracy in Australia.

While this research has made many suggestions which may be useful to a various professional groups, it seems that colleagues in the public sector are ultimately the key actors for the enactment of meaningful electronic democracy. The vision, commitment and values of those now developing Australia’s information technology infrastructure will have lasting impact. Their receptiveness to communications such as this one, and their communications with others in this field, will create self-organisation patterns through the voices of many individuals. Like all complex situations, this future is unpredictable. Hopefully, the perspectives proposed here will contribute to these deliberations and stimulate further explorations.