Paper prepared for conference on:
COMMUNICATION, CITIZENSHIP AND SOCIAL POLICY: RE-THINKING THE LIMITS OF THE WELFARE STATE
University of Colorado at Boulder October 2-5, 1997
Karin Geiselhart, [then] PhD student, Faculty of Communication, University of Canberra, Australia
Traditional liberal concepts of democracy and citizenship rely on an informed citizenry to hold governments accountable. The shift to a global economy creates attenuated accountability, and exponential growth in the information necessary for informed decision-making. The ascent of ‘policy elites’ and ‘symbolic analysts’ has altered the environment in which policy debates occur. Changes in the value placed on information also place pressures on governments to commodify their information holdings and distribution. Taken together, these trends encourage an economic-rationalist approach to information policy and technology as cost-saving instruments, rather than methods for improving social outcomes. The potential for transforming democratic process through information technology can be inhibited if power structures increasingly limit participation to policy elites. This further restricts conceptualisation of communication policy as social policy.
Evidence is given for the growing conflict between ideals of active citizenship and pressures which restrict the agenda for debate. New models for participation arising from community networks and on-line democracy are described. Documents and examples of Australian government information policy and approaches to technology are also given, along with likely implications for the policy process. These observations are placed in a theoretical framework consistent with a transformation of the democratic process appropriate to new communication technologies.
Title: Democracy.com - the challenges within government
We have become used to enthusiastic descriptions of the revolutionary changes to our working, consuming and social lives which are being brought about through the emerging and converging information superhighways. Speculation about the effects of new communication technologies focuses on how homes, businesses and education will change. Less common is public consideration of the implications for communication itself, particularly in relation to citizens and their government. There has been little analysis of the changes that have already become entrenched through the widespread use of computerisation in government over the last twenty years.
It is suggested here that a long trail of rationalisation, instrumental applications of technology, and changing values concerning information have led to a weakening of centuries old concepts about the nature of government and citizenship, and the possible interactions between them. First, an indication of some underlying assumptions about information and communication which influenced liberal theories of government is given. Then, an outline of the pervasive recent reforms to the public sector and the implications for the treatment of information, both within government organisations and in their wider communications with the public. These changes will be linked to the enervating effects which conflicting concepts of public service have within government agencies. Finally, the possibility of a revitalisation of concepts of active citizenship is considered, with reference to current theories and existing examples of the democratic use of technology.
Information in liberal theories of government
Until the introduction of universal franchise in this century, the masses were effectively excluded from the decision-making process, but not necessarily from the formation of public morality. What Locke called ‘the law of opinion or reputation’ allowed for the creation and modification of public will. This was sustained by mundane social interactions, through which people express their approval or disapproval. Of course, issues of morality and much more were framed by the existing social, religious and economic beliefs of the time. Then, as now, few would be aware of the conditioning that shaped their most deeply held beliefs. The basic point is that the concepts of civil society or a public sphere as we understand it can be traced back to the eighteenth century, as both an enforcement and a justification of government. (Hindess 1996)
Thus, even the illiterate had a form of participation, which rested on their ability to communicate with each other. Leaflets, street corner speeches and the press would have also contributed to the flow of information. Whether there was more or less openness in such communications, or transparency of government decision making, is not the issue here. Rather, it is the centrality of communication as a rudimentary form of active citizenship and its relation to the role of government.
These concepts were literally revolutionary in their time, and were enshrined in the American constitution, among other documents. Jeffersonian attitudes towards the necessity of a free flow of information as a prerequisite for participatory democracy led to a fervent belief in freedom of speech and the power of a free press. One enduring legacy of these enlightened philosophies is the tradition of intellectual freedom which has been developed over the last century in public libraries. Librarians can be considered the ideal intellectual worker for a number of reasons, and (Kadie 1996) suggests that any disputes over decency, access, and censorship in electronic media can be resolved by reference to the rich set of intellectual freedom principles which have guided librarians. These cover the freedom to read, exhibit spaces and bulletin boards, confidentiality, censorship, diversity in collecting, to name just a few issues now surfacing on the information superhighways. Another characteristic of librarians which sets them apart from other groups which are custodians of knowledge is their professional predisposition towards sharing information. Not surprisingly, librarians have been quick not just to adopt new technologies, but to offer a clear-headed perspective on the opportunities and challenges which new approaches to knowledge present for the library as an institution. (Missingham 1997)
In Australia, British social liberalism of the late nineteenth century strongly influenced a wide range of institutional development (Sawer 1996), including libraries. The threats which globalisation and the commodification of information present to libraries in their role as developing an informed citizenry was recognised before the Internet brought such issues to the fore. (Reinecke 1989) These trends have led to a convergence of government practice, with less emphasis in Australia on earlier values.
Public libraries have of course been funded and run by governments at various levels, and have only in recent years come under threat through the increasing trend away from public provision of services. Freedom of speech remains intact in the US at least formally, with the Supreme Court declaring in June the Communications Decency Act (CDA) unconstitutional. This decision was hailed by civil libertarians as ‘a clear extension of basic rights to communication on the Internet’, according to the US group Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. That same month in Australia, however, a Senate Committee recommended regulation of Internet Service Providers which would make them responsible, subject to $100,000 fines, for censoring and filtering information from their clients. (Hansard transcripts)
These examples, although contradictory in their outcomes, illustrate that it is still within the domain of governments to reinforce liberal concepts about access to information, or to regulate its flow. Those subscribing to liberal concepts of governance would also say that government has a critical obligation to maintain and expand access to information and communication for the ‘common good’, and as a prerequisite to democratic participation. But is this ‘motherhood’ statement about the role of government still part of the widely accepted norms underpinning the modern nation state in an increasingly globalised and information-based economy? If not, where and how is the erosion occurring? The pivotal function of new technologies in either supporting or suppressing public deliberation and normative consensus, while not often a mass media topic, has been recognised by many communications scholars. (Dahl, 1989, p 338, Zimmerman 1995, Aikens 1996, McChesney 1996, Calabrese 1996, Schaefer 1995, Sclove 1995)
The near-universal trends in public sector reform over recent decades provides an important context for a consideration of the role of new technology in democratic processes. These reforms have themselves influenced the ways in which information is presented to citizens. The next section discusses these public sector changes and their impact on the ways in which government applies interactive technologies in particular, both internally and for external communication with citizens. These changes, which are intimately linked to wider changes in power and control, have led to areas of malocclusion between the private and public spheres, and confusion over accountability. The examples come from the Australian public sector, but others will no doubt find resonances within their own countries.
Government as a non-public sphere
This section outlines the direction of the reforms which have swept public administrations since the 1980s, followed by an indication of the way this sea change has affected internal decision making and applications of information technology in government administration. The much vaunted advances in managing information have not been applied in value-neutral ways, but have rather reflected and reinforced the dominant political and economic structures. This is the pattern which has been identified at global, national and departmental levels. (McChesney 1996, Lyon 1988, Preissl 1997, Henman 1996, Spurgeon 1997)
The changes to government administrations are intimately related to the changes in communication technologies and structures which are now so important for both public and private life. As Lyons points out, governments have had a pervasive role in these changes, and were everywhere ‘implicated in the research, development and marketing of information technology’. (Lyons, 1988, p 34-35)
The current age is characterised by an exponential growth in volume and complexity of information, along with vigorous efforts to understand, use and direct this information. For governments, the range of functions has vastly increased, while the trust placed in it has decreased, leading to highly ambivalent attitudes towards the state and its spending. (Peters 1989 p 251, Self 1989 p 37) It is a widespread belief that government should withdraw from as much of the welfare sphere as will be politically tolerated. A more extreme faction sees government itself as a form of welfare, a blundering megalith which interferes with ‘natural’ market adjustments. Certainly the nation state as currently formulated is under threat, and subtle messages that the corporate sector can fill the gaps through its recognition of the need for global stability and sustainability (Hart 1997, Magretta 1997) must be considered critically.
Increasingly, the viability of the state is measured in money, as the corporate interests which have the wherewithal to influence public agendas vie with the state for influence. Therefore government policy making is intimately linked to the ability to monitor, track, evaluate and quantify vast flows of financial and social information. The question then arises: which values do governments choose to support with their information armories, and how are these linked to concepts of government in its role as administrator and maintainer of public norms?
A partial answer may be found in an analysis of the pervasive transformation of public sectors. The increasing application of ever-broader computing systems to government may be considered part of a wider convergence between the public and private sectors, which places a high regard on ‘instrumental’ efficiency and accountability. (Considine 1988) Widespread ‘reforms’ to the public sector have sought to apply the standards and practices of business as models. These have been been widely documented, and are global in their application (Zifcak 1994, Peters 1996). A corollary is the redefinition and reduction of citizens to economic units, or consumers. (Mintzberg 1996, Considine 1988, McChesney 1996) The bureaucratic procedures of the public sector may be considered a barrier to economic progress. (Ives 1994)
Although there is variation and even contradiction in the way these reforms have been applied (Peters 1996), the general features have been characterised as:
adoption of business plans and revenue targets; introduction of guidelines in place of inflexible rules; a move away from centralised controls; application of market practices such as user pays; more flexible work and pay arrangements, and more emphasis on client needs (Ives 1994)
A different analysis describes four key concepts as: an emphasis on quantifiable, single purpose economically measurable outputs, neglect of the political dimensions of public organisations, a focus on integration in preference to decentralised forms of service development and delivery; and an unwarranted optimism about the potency of technical rationality under central direction. (Considine 1988)
Considine believes that more important than the scale of change is the transformation of ‘ideals, rationales and legitimations for public organisations.’ (1988 pg 4) The emphasis on risk minimisation, quantification, simulation and surveillance (Bogard 1996, Henman 1996) creates a subtle yet aggressive attack on traditional Weberian models of administration which followed precedent, relied on widely understood codes of practice and were carried out by officials without vested interests in the outcomes. (Considine 1988)
In Australia this has been realised administratively as elimination of state levels of federal agencies (Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Department of Social Security), minimisation or elimination of agencies which had equity as their main focus (Affirmative Action Agency, Office of the Status of Women, Office of Multicultural Affairs), and constrained funding for agencies which handle complaints from the public or pursue environmental and heritage agendas (Ombudsmans Office, Department of the Environment, Sports and Territories, Australian Heritage Commission). Policy agencies refocussed on policy development, with less regard for prior consultation. In one State government, the Auditor’s Office has been privatised.
Performance indicators and supposedly more open requirements for reporting were introduced, but without changes to the underlying power relationships which allow unflattering facts and expenditures to be hidden (Zifcak 1994, p 133) Corporate plans sprang up everywhere, but with little linkage to social indicators.
There is not space in this paper for either a detailed outline or a full critique of these reforms, although many have pointed out their limited usefulness and the critical role which ideology has played (Peters 1996, Zifcak 1994, p 44) Considering the enormous pressures generated by globalisation, it is no wonder that the direction of the reforms seems to be independent of the nominal ideological orientation of the governments which implement them. (Zifcak 1994 p 155 ) Certainly the 1996 election of a Liberal government in Australia led to an escalation in the pace, but not the direction, of public sector and wider policy changes, after thirteen years of Labor. It is clear that an underlying shift in values and functions of government is occurring (Calabrese 1996, Considine 1988, Mintzberg 1996), independent of the structural permutations which muddy the conceptual waters.
These models of reform reflect an acceptance of rational actor theory, which assumes individuals are willing and able to make decisions based on maximisation of personal benefit, by assessing the abundant and accurate information they have at hand. They ‘contract’ for goods and services, presumably in an open market-place of choice and diversity. Such concepts have their roots, as implied above, in the origins of social contract theory. A growing number of writers, however, seek to draw attention to the fact that these assumptions have never provided an accurate model of the consumer market place, much less of citizen’s relationships with government.
An over-reliance on business models which equate citizens to consumers or clients has been rejected by Mintzberg (1996), who has called for a better balance is the range of organisational structures available for different purposes. He notes some of the myths of management, and reminds us that many activities are in the public domain precisely because of the difficulty of attaching a set of clear measurements, outcomes and responsibilities to them. He affirms that private goods are worthless without public goods to protect them, and decries the increase in political appointments to government offices, which he says must be recognised for what they are: political corruption. He is explicit about the problem of eroding norms. In a normative-control model, which underpinned mechanistic bureaucracies, it was the values and beliefs that kept it functioning. Concepts of service and dedication muted the negative effects of the bureaucracy. If these values are no longer supported, confusion and then cynicism sets in.
Mintzberg’s call for a diversity in structures is echoed from an economic perspective, as over-reliance on competition places an emphasis on short-term survival, and diminishes the economic benefits available through collaboration and cooperation. (Tissdell 1996)
The application of these managerial principles in the public sector gives rise to an additional question about the workings of government, in terms of decision making within agencies and the application of computerised technologies. What is the affect on individuals in the public sector and their ability to meet their dual responsibilities to elected officials and the citizens they serve? Again, my examples will be Australian.
Impacts at the organisational level
But first, a bit of context. In Australia, as noted above, British social liberalism was a strong influence on the way social policy was conceived and implemented at the time of federation. (Sawer 1996) An overt belief in the need for government to promote both a ‘fair go’ and active citizenship was embraced as part of the core ethos of the fledgling federation. The notion of a fair go has no doubt helped to keep the lid on inequality, up until roughly the mid-1980s, when the Australian welfare state probably reached its zenith. Notions of access and equity were common currency in the bureaucracy, and agencies were required to report to the Office of Multicultural Affairs on their latest efforts to achieve these goals. Government funded lobby organisations flourished, publishing programs gave away thousands of tonnes of policy, strategy and information materials, and equal opportunity programs were meaningful. Unions were key actors in industrial relations negotiations. Inequalities in the distribution of wealth, while increasing, were managed by a broad safety net and benign social policies such as universal health insurance, free university and inexpensive technical education, substantial subsidies for child care centres, EEO legislation, and unlimited access to unemployment benefits. Public sector employment was close to lifetime job security.
For many public employees, an underlying ethos of promoting equality and participation guided individuals and agencies in their tasks. A certain amount of waste and inefficiency was considered part of the cost of informing citizens about government activities, and encouraging participation.
Since then, a steady stream of administrative and legislative change of the sort outlined above has diminished social security and participative processes, both for public sector employees and for the wider community. ‘Democratic and equity agendas were progressively eclipsed’. (Zifcak 1994, p 155) Considine (1988) also notes the damaging effect of corporate managerialism on democratic processes. If success were measured in social or democratic outcomes, these reforms must be considered abysmal failures. A number of social and environmental indicators are substantially worse now than in the mid-1980s. (Gregory 1995 provides Australian data, Thurow 1997 gives an American perspective)
Implications for democratic process
A liberal philosophy of government requires that an ‘administration’s values can be expected, more or less to reflect those of society. (Zifcak 1994 p 139) We must then ask what is being measured, and what values are being reflected. Are people choosing governments which decrease social wages and equity? In the reconstructed government of instant processing and electronic commerce, does the business of government deliver the information necessary for informed consent? If values are shifting towards a purchaser-provider view of government, where do the administrators fit in? Are they too just replaceable parts in a ever more automated machine?
The way control is exercised at the level of the individual, the family, the group, and particularly the workplace can be called forms of governance. (Foucault, as discussed in Hindess 1996) The importance of internal governance of the workplace has been recognised as a template for wider democratic process and learning. (Dahl 1989 p 329, Sclove 1995, Zimmerman 1995, Pateman 1970) This is particularly true of federal employees. Their ability to act responsibly, and their understanding of what that means, is greatly affected by their organisational structures. Further, their decisions impact more broadly than their own agency. For central policy agencies, repercussions can be national; for regional officers, serving at front desks, their discretionary actions can be where real implementation occurs. (Peters 1988)
In Canberra, location of the current author’s research and experience, the continual and escalating upheavals since the late 1980s have resulted in a dramatic loss of morale and sense of purpose, along with job security. One agency has taken the word ‘morale’ out of their annual staff surveys, after repeated dismal results. Although there is much rhetoric about learning organisations and finding new ways of working, the dominant structures remain strongly hierarchical. As Considine (1988) points out, this ‘contradicts current private management precepts.’
Some departments, such as Administrative Services, have been broken up, sold off or absorbed, while others have had their functions diminished, altered, audited for cost-effectiveness and reshuffled. Pride in work, development of corporate memory and traditions, and prospects for career advancement all fade in the face of organisational uncertainty, which affects officers at all levels.
From a policy perspective, there is now less interest in or possibility of real dialogue with community groups and representative social welfare bodies. In some cases, funding for national or consultative organisations has been cut back or eliminated. Feedback within agencies is diminished, as goals are set at higher levels. Political appointments are evident, sometimes in the form of familial connections between the rich, the famous and the duly elected.
At the level of the agency, or the office threatened with absorption, workers learn to keep quiet or get out. Those who remain perceive that their career hopes lie in going with the flow.
One prediction from these trends is a decreased emphasis on industrial democracy processes, and a greater acquiescence with managerial dictates. An article for a staff newsletter suggesting the development of an industrial democracy plan was rejected by a senior executive, and replaced by a milder document suggesting current arrangements were adequate. Consultative mechanisms, where they continue, function within a narrowly circumscribed frame of reference. The new Public Service Act sets the stage for much more individualised and fragmented public sector work force, with many more private, short term contractual employment arrangements.
These measures are consonant with changes in the private sector, but with an important difference. The private sector has a clear ‘bottom line’ and well defined goals: the purpose of improved efficiency is to improve profits, and growth is a desirable corollary. There are no large and complex social goals to be achieved. The public sector, on the other hand, is charged with maintaining democratic process, in a basic way, in keeping with liberal concepts of government.
The current shift in values towards a supposedly neutral business model has caught many public sector managers in a double bind. The pursuit of efficiency and cost-effectiveness in delivering agreed-upon government services is not a problem for them, although all the usual power struggles will impede that progress. However, for the public sector, efficiency is now being associated with diminished function and, in many cases, the eventual elimination of their agency. Managers know they are expected to get on with managing, but are unsure and insecure of what they are meant to achieve and what it might mean for them personally. The persistence of hierarchical management prevents real solutions, or even realistic discussion and definition of the problem, from surfacing. Everyone ducks for cover, in a downward spiral of extreme busy-ness with no resolution. One informant said that at the end of a two year project to produce an extensive and expensive report, the executive backed away from promoting it, because they could not decide on its strategic purpose.
Confusion about goals, together with changing expectations of government, makes it difficult for public sector managers to understand, much less act upon, programs which might bring them in closer contact and communication with the wider community. Accountability is only defined upwards, towards the elected government. Lower level officers are not in a position to counter higher directives. These tensions create a ‘meat in the sandwich’ situation for public sector officers still committed to public service, as the concept of the public good becomes blurred by consumerist and cost-savings rhetoric. Because of the still mostly secretive way the bureaucracy operates, there are few opportunities to express this frustration or seek clarification from the wider public.
These, then, are some of the ways which the ‘macro’ view impacts on key internal actors and processes. The corporatisation of government colonises smaller scales. They are reflected in changes to consultative practices and the provision of information, as well as in the uses of information technology. We turn now to how these changes in the role of government have been realised in relation to information technology, and the implications for information as a public resource.
IT: Instrumental Technology?
The decision to outsource virtually all Australian government information technology (and many corporate service) functions is an interesting, and still unfolding, case study of decision-making at the highest levels. These decisions have been made and progressively implemented over the last five years. There is not space in this paper to discuss the history and documentation of these changes. As of December 1997, departments were well under way with plans to outsource. These decisions were clearly imposed through the Office of Government Information Technology (OGIT), an agency originally attached to the Department of Finance. One joke around Canberra is that OGIT stands for Only Give It to Transnationals. Recent indications are that the approach has recently been softened, following unfavourable reports on outsourcing elsewhere.
Outsourcing brings another set of consequences into play, including issues of confidentiality and privacy in the handling of personal information; accountability measures when contracts are increasingly labelled ‘commercial in confidence’; and the potential deskilling of large numbers of professional groups if services migrate overseas. For example, outsourcing may place increasing amounts of information crucial to the public good in the hands of private companies which are not subject to Freedom of Information or Privacy Act considerations. Transparency, the tracking of accountability, and public dialogue on these contracts becomes problematic.
It is not yet possible to say with certainty how these issues will be dealt with, given that the process has just begun. It is, however, a subject of great concern and debate within the government IT community, with varying degrees of support and condemnation. These issues receive only modest coverage outside the specialised media, and there is little scope for negotiation. The determination of current costs and the measurement of potential savings is a complex exercise, not easily assessed by outsiders.
Somewhat tangential to these concerns, but closely related to the decline of the nation state and its role in informing the public, is the rise of corporate public relations as a disinformational counter to citizen activism. This subject is too large to do more than hint at here, but is covered by Stauber and Rampton, 1995, and by Beder 1997, with significant Australian examples.
IT and public sector productivity
Problems of productivity measurement are a bete noir for advocates of greater computerisation. Questioning the ultimate benefits resulting from the introduction of computerisation is not new (Attewell 1996), and is possibly growing, as dependency on these technologies increases. Also, the basis on which predictions of economic benefit are made are likely to reflect a bias towards the commodification of information and a neglect of social issues. (Preissl 1997, Branscomb 1994)
Heimler, drawing on Canadian experience, describes in some detail how the ‘productivity paradox’ takes hold in hierarchies that implement IT without making the necessary shift in ‘mental models’. (Heimler 1996) His analysis illustrates what can happen when managerial principles are enacted for information technology, without the benefit of organisational reengineering. Only non-trivial restructuring can bring about fundamental change in bureaucracies. (Martin 1997 p 13) Lack of consensus on long-term goals creates conflicting messages and allows temporary alliances to obfuscate even straightforward tasks.
Heimler argues that IT cannot improve productivity in current government hierarchies, because the sheer volume and velocity of information overwhelms the decision makers at the top. Thus, new IT systems tend to bog down because staff and clients haven’t been involved in legitimate consultation, and bottom-up communication is suppressed. Participation in information technology design has always presented problems for all types of organisations. (Boddy 1996) Without such participation, solutions tend to mirror beliefs of those at the top, and as the crisis increases, the ‘need to be seen to be doing something outweighs the need to be thinking about things’ Despite corporate plans, Heimler says government fails to act as a mediator, as the ‘bureaucratic model does not focus on value, creativity, vision, problem solving and client service.’
One outcome of this bleak scenario is that ‘policy and program responses tend to look and feel the same across a range of portfolios’. Drawing on the literature of learning organisations, he suggests that one way out would be to truly devolve decision-making from the over-loaded top, and look for more lateral forms of accountability. However, given that such approaches involving team building and bottom-up decision making are ‘knowledge driven’ (rather than power-driven), more often the outcome is to ‘further strengthen the centre of government, adding more and yet more politicians, bureaucrats, experts and computers in the desperate hope of outrunning the acceleration of complexity.’(Heimler 1996)
Heimler’s analysis resembles Considine’s (1988) critique of the corporate management framework, which disguises tighter central control with devolved control over resources, but not policy. The contributions of all but the executive are seen as primarily and essentially technical, as agencies are forced into ever greater integration, uniformity and consistency among government services and activities.
If this is the prevalent mind-set, then the relatively modest recognition of the potential for electronic consultation is no surprise. As one government official succinctly put it: ‘the technology is lateral, but the structures are vertical’. Other anecdotes are more revealing: when offered an electronic list for wide discussion of a particular policy issue, the shocked reply from an executive officer was ‘You mean we wouldn’t be able to control who we communicate with?’ Given the authoritarian structures which dominate, and the insecure environment in which many public servants operate, it would be difficult to imagine that a strong sense of ‘moral autonomy’ would be thriving in the public sector. Yet without the development of such reflexivity at the occupational level, broader challenges to the status quo are unlikely. (Zimmerman 1995)
Alternative ways of working which challenge such paradigms are difficult to introduce, and are thus rarely costed or measured. Costs to the Commonwealth in 1993/94 for IT to support service delivery alone was estimated at $1.4 billion, with possibly several hundred million dollars in additional costs per year due to ineffective use of information management tools. (IMSC Report 1966, p 11) Methods and technologies which build on existing patterns, offering more speed or less time, are more welcome. Improvements to client services, rather than building better democratic process, have been the major focus of government IT efforts, so much so that other possibilities are considered tangential, with a few notable exceptions. As one officer involved with the area observed: ‘The service delivery people have hijacked the IT agenda.’
Interactive examples from federal agencies
One aspect of IT which shows great potential for encouraging participation is interactivity. This can be either individual, group, or massed. If the ‘dumb terminal’ typifies a passive and powerless relation to a technology and its masters, then the World Wide Web is the model of unbounded, open-ended communication, where producers and receivers of information entwine freely (McChesney 1996, Negroponte 1996).
There is already a large literature on electronic democracy (Street, 1997, for example). Different views have emerged: do we seek simply more information to the public, or active deliberation? Some writers have voiced concerns that trivial, consumerist forms of electronic democracy, such as television phone-ins, detract from public understanding of what real participation could mean. (Calabrese 1997, Zimmerman 1995) Of interest here is the interrelations between the internal applications of IT to open up discussion and its wider application to government-citizen communications.
Zuboff (1988) offered the useful concept of the ‘informating’ potential of IT. She found some companies realised automation creates a new data stream which might allow employees to become more productive, if they understood the ideas behind the technology and were able to derive conclusions. The alternative was using workers to simply monitor what passed by on the screen, which led to deskilling and a halt to learning. Similar concepts of feedback loops emerge in the learning organisation literature: double loop learning is reflective, and examines basic assumptions. (Senge 1992, Agyris 1973)
Interactivity with computers has a similar set of boundaries. Weak interactivity simply replaces other media and follows the same pattern, but with increased possibilities of surveillance. An example is having draft policy documents available for comment via email. This is the ‘your views have been noted’ approach. Strong interactivity, on the other hand, allows these comments to be transparently available to those who made them, and to others, collectively, with provision for further development. This is the discussion data-base model.
Non-electronic examples of a transparent process can be found in various government enquires which provide copies of all submissions to all submitters. This can result in thousands of pages of testimony or commentary, delivered at government expense to hundred of individuals and organisations. The advantages of making such information available electronically are considerable. These include cost-savings and the ability to search on keywords to find important connections.
Beyond transparency of input, one would look for earlier input, before the draft document has already winnowed out the less conforming options for action, or the less vital possibilities for reform. Considine’s (1994) distinction between developmental and instrumental policy functions provides an insight into the internal and wider uses of the technology. Internal practice in open processes may be a training ground for improved communications with external stakeholders and citizens.
A range of initiatives to use interactive technologies for improving two-way information flows have sprung up within the Australian Public Service over the past several years, with the wide-spread introduction and dramatic growth in the use of interactive technologies in the Commonwealth. On both internal and external scales, a rich complexity emerges. Many factors affect the potential for electronic democracy within the Australian Public Service, including security concerns, existing structures, the novelty of the technologies, and drives towards cost-savings. (Geiselhart 1996)
The history of several projects over the past year offers insights into the possibilities and the obstacles for the uses of IT in policy work. The Community Information Network (CIN), established as a pilot by the Department of Social Security in 1995, was an ambitious project which intended to encourage development of local community content and improve communications with the Department. The public access network, via CIN sponsored PCs, was withdrawn in October of 1996, leaving a potentially interactive Web site with discussions for specialty groups, and information about DSS entitlements and policies. It was managed by dedicated, capable people with a vision of community access. There were separate ‘rooms’ for seniors, youth, women, the disabled, etc. These don’t seem to have ever been fully activated, and the DSS site now contains no reference to the CIN, which has possibly been superseded by the new service delivery agency. While clearly a top-down, centrally initiated project, the CIN was in keeping with a nation building approach to communications and social policy. (Osborne 1995, Sawer 1996)
The Education Network Australia, (EdNA), established by the (then) Department of Employment, Education and Training in 1995, was always conceived as a de-centralised network, partly reflecting Commonwealth/State demarcation issues. This network has been refoccused and now seems to operate as an education resource, with links to many institution’s web pages and a diversity of curriculum and special interest projects, as well as education-related newsgroups. Discussion lists, which have the potential to link educators, administrators and citizens at a more formal policy-related level, have been under development for the past year, but do not seem to be active.
The PUBSEC mailing list, initiated in 1996, still thrives, although its parent organisation, the Department of Administrative Services (DAS), is being dismantled. PUBSEC offers a forum for the discussion of public sector issues generally, and postings include much useful information, as well as a few sighs and brickbats, gently monitored. The initiator of the list had a clear view of the potential for such discussion to contribute to policy development, particularly with a mix of international bureaucrats, private sector subscribers and academics. (Strangman 1996) An evaluation of PUBSEC reflected the benefits of such a collaborative setting. There were some difficulties in securing funding following the trial period. The initiator is no longer in the public service, and is running a lively list for retirees, called OZ-RETIRE.
In addition, most agencies have web pages, and many put up documents for discussion and comment. Usually these follow the ‘weak’ pattern of interactivity, with no provision for examination of the comments others have made. Also, draft policy documents have already been through a development process limited to upper echelons of the bureaucracy and selected non-government organisations. The shift towards electronic provision of documents also creates new access problems, with down-loading and printing difficulties, as well as training and categorising challenges. (Preissl 1997, Missingham 1997, Gilbert 1996)
These examples illustrate the difficulty that many participatory initiatives meet in the public sector. Because their benefits are long term, vague, and not easily quantified, they find a cool reception from senior managers. Officers with the most to contribute are often passive ‘lurkers’, with PUBSEC subscribers from key policy departments occasionally prodded for their opinions. The pattern found in studies of computer mediated communication (Perin 1991, Clement 1994) tends to be repeated, of horizontal collaboration between members clustering at the middle management level. Flow-on to the subscribers’ home agency is uncertain, implicit and tangential, rather than intentionally exploited. Some officers prefer to stay with factual exchanges, noting that they haven’t time for philosophy. Prominent disclaimers distance their statements from the official position of their agencies, although, as one officer observed, ‘I don’t believe there is any such thing as an off the record conversation.’ The ‘textualising’ of communication on interactive systems (Zuboff 1988) encourages a cautious approach. Some non-government lists have government members, and vice versa, further inhibiting critical expression, particularly if there are funding links. Such lists also tend to have a life cycle, with ebbs and flows of interest and intensity.
Perhaps most revealing of all is the narrowing and near collapse of the CIRG-L list, which was set up as part of the Commonwealth Internet Reference Group, managed by a progressive and civic minded officer in the Office of Government Information Technology. These middle level officers, mostly technologists, would meet and then communicate electronically to discuss issues of importance to the development of the Internet in the Commonwealth. For a while the researcher was part of the CIRG, and found the meetings and contacts very useful. In early 1996 the range of topics was declared narrowed to certain aspects of implementation, and the list grew very quiet. Meetings still occur with reduced frequency. Many contacts in government Internet areas have never heard of CIRG. Thus, their potential to become real actors is reduced. They are primarily implementers, not policy shapers.
While the above examples extend beyond individual departments, internal initiatives meet similar difficulties. A project to develop software specifically for policy analysis was initiated in one large department, but ran aground when a trial revealed that when assembled in one place, there were many embarrassing policy inconsistencies. The officers associated with them then backed away, rather than engage with the clarification required. The developer has not been able to obtain funding to develop the database further.
Thus, although theoretically open and encouraging of participation, such interactive initiatives are unlikely to have a formal role in guiding or redirecting government policy. Structural and cultural norms and expectations ensure that such effects are dampened from within, unless informed and motivated influences higher up the ladder recognise the potential such forums offer.
Similar patterns have emerged in the researcher’s case studies of interactive policy development within agencies. State of the art computer shops in government, which use the most advanced technologies in highly efficient ways, sometimes have no mechanisms for internal discussion. In one such agency, the lagging attempts to introduce groupware were explained by one informant: ‘It’s hard to make a business case for that sort of thing.’
However, where they exist, electronic initiatives for wide discussion and information within workplaces can be successful in contributing to a feeling of participation and belonging, as the researcher found in one department with an extensive bulletin board system. Other departments are successfully using groupware.
Commonwealth knowledge management
Overall, the initiation of interactive projects in the Commonwealth fits the policy model proposed by Considine (1994). Players on different levels make proposals, and some get up and running, for a variety of reasons. The desire of agencies to be part of the Internet revolution, or the pressures to become more cost-effective, lead to a variety of programs. Some survive, particularly if supported at the higher levels, while others collapse before benefits materialise. Dependencies and legitimation generally bow towards upper structures, leading to an emphasis developing measurable efficiencies in centralised, large-scale client - government projects. Citizen-to-citizen communication, or development of citizen-government interaction in the fullest sense is given a much lower priority.
But even at the highest levels of policy formulation for uses of government IT, a diversity of views injects life into the process. A vestigial commitment to a social liberal view of citizen participation as a essential ingredient in national development acts as counterpoint to economic rationalist thinking.
The mission statement for the Office of Government Information Technology, for example, focuses on the instrumental goals: ‘To add significant value to agencies' application of Information Management & Communications in improving program delivery and administration’.
Likewise, the vision for the Framework & Strategies for Information Technology in the Commonwealth of Australia - Exposure Draft (1995), has an orientation towards achievable economies and efficiencies:
‘The Commonwealth will be a world leader in government administration and in the cost-effective provision of affordable, equitable and accessible Australian government information and services.
Australians will have seamless access - that is, through common interfaces - to a range of government information and services appropriate to the client group, wherever it is cost-effective to do so.’
What is missing is Zuboff’s (1988)‘informating’ dimension, or Considine’s (1994) developmental function. This is a common oversight in government documents of this kind. The UK Green Paper (1996) makes it clear from the title: ‘government.direct: A prospectus for the Electronic Delivery of Government Services’, that it is offering a business model. Its intention is to ‘change fundamentally and for the better the way that government provides services to citizens and businesses. Services will be more accessible, more convenient, easier to use, quicker in response and less costly to the taxpayer.’
The examples given are drawn from business, and the overall pattern very much resembles what one would expect from private enterprise, but no more. There is much mention of ‘rationality’ and cost savings. There is some acknowledgment of the potential for participation in the policy process (via email) and of citizen’s rights: ‘In addition to improvements in service delivery, the proposals in this Green Paper will help citizens to involve themselves more in the democratic process. Both Citizen’s Charter information and basic statutory information will be widely accessible electronically.’(p 31) This looks like a one-way information flow, rather than strong interactivity.
A draft Community Information Strategy for the ACT (1996) listed key information which should be available electronically, but omitted contentious urban planning issues from this inventory.
A refreshing contrast is provided by an Australian Government document on ‘Management of Government Information as a National Strategic Resource’ (1996). Here, too, the title is an accurate guide to the tone and intent of the document; in this case to provide a thoughtful and comprehensive outline of the issues involved in using government information collectively for broad national objectives.
While the terms of reference for the Information Management Steering Committee (IMSC) are modest (p 1), the document shows a pervasive awareness of the need to address social as well as economic issues, and the potential to create a framework for individuals to interact richly with government, rather than simply as clients for government services: ‘it will no longer be acceptable for government to consider clients as transactions waiting in a queue. Australians will become better informed individuals….’ (p 10)
The need to integrate business plans and achieve cost-effectiveness through information management is an important component, but this is not viewed in isolation. Technical and legal aspects of information management are placed in a values framework, informed by theoretical understanding and discussion of information society concepts and prominent overseas projects, such as North Star in Minnesota. There is no backing away from recognition that the Australian Public Service will need to change from within to meet these challenges (p 9).
A section on Electronic Democracy goes well beyond the platitude offered in the UK paper, and suggests that the Internet can assist by allowing earlier and wider input into policy processes. This is an example of both ‘informating’ and the possibility of greater lateral accountability, as Au Coin (quoted in Heimler 1996) has recommended.
However, it would be premature to assume that a benevolent or even a uniform approach to government information will prevail. The number of actors on the information management stage is large, and they are all still learning their lines. Considering the scope of the issues covered, diversity and conflict of views is to be expected. Approximately a dozen players are already involved in electronic commerce. An officer with an interest in the IMSC report said that electronic democracy issues were deliberately treated lightly, so as not to stir up a backlash. The influential head of the IMSC project has left the public sector for an academic position far from Canberra. Tracking of information management projects in the researcher’s case studies suggests that idealistic plans for implementation can easily fall by the wayside.
Simulating the future
Bogard (1996) has painted a ‘social science fiction’ in which ‘hypercontrol’ reaches its logical destination, where simulation and modelling, combined with ever more intense surveillance, replace any need for real-world experimentation. With all parameters built into the model, and powerful processors to consider every possibility, other approaches become quaint. Bogard’s scenarios are not unbelievable, based as they are on actual events. In fact, they are broadly confirmed by Henman’s (1996) study of computerisation in policy work at the Department of Social Security. Henman found that the effects of computerisation were to increase quantification, central control, monitoring, evaluation, and surveillance. Modelling and dependence on computers become essential to any policy proposals, and tend to place policy decisions in the technical, rather than social, realm. Andersen (1997) has written about the need for an overtly political role among those who simulate government policies.
Although there is much cause for concern in the above analysis, there is also enormous opportunity for redirecting the use of electronic technologies in government to support democratic process. Sclove is an advocate of a multi-faceted approach to the problems of democracy, scale, and technology. His seminal work, Democracy and Technology (1995), is both a philosophical approach to the links between these topics, and a guide to how it can, and is, being done.
The role of government in directing and demonstrating democratic uses for information technology is complex, and cannot be resolved in isolation of other issues relating to technology and democratic process. Those who work within government, and have some understanding of their responsibilities as shapers of social policy, are often caught up in the enervated moral atmosphere that relentlessly trickles down from upper echelons. Senior managers, on the other hand, would point to their political masters as the point of ultimate accountability, who would, in turn, cite the latest polls. At all levels, the inculcation of reflexivity and development of a critical consciousness is sacrificed to short term, narrowly viewed outcomes.
Just considering modelling and simulation, for example, raises the possibility of alternative models. Information technology is notoriously mutable, and examples of applications which improve outcomes, whether inside agencies or in relation to public communication, should be promoted. Professionals in the field need to be made aware of the developmental potential, and encouraged to trial applications with this in mind.
Models which work, such as public library systems, need to put forward as success stories on an economic, social, institutional and worker level. It has often been said among public servants that the Australian government does lots of good things, but they never tell anyone about it. The advances in equity and the glimmerings of a truly civil society must be what is measured, promoted and used as a basis for coalition-building. The failures of personal courage to take such stands are rooted in the workings of power and its relation to governance. Power is omnipresent, whether at the level of introducing a new computer system or choosing between competing sets of values in policy development.
The advice to start with empowerment and action at the level of the workplace, as noted above, needs to be taken seriously. Any flow-on to other scales should be carefully tracked. As indicated in the Australian government evidence above, this would not be easy, but a start would be more democratic uses of technology within agencies. Sclove’s (1995) democratic design criteria could then become internalised at a level capable of exerting wider influence. Such initiatives are still possible, if presented as assisting in becoming a learning organisation. Role plays which tease out prisoner’s dilemma situations, and help develop solutions, are another avenue for stimulating moral and social development at the micro level. (Zimmerman 1995)
The concepts of democratic participation and their liberal underpinnings are not out of date, but they urgently need reexamination and revitalisation. Not just technical, but moral linkages to desired norms need to be reestablished.
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