Geiselhardt, K. (1998), "The role of interactive technologies in democratic policy processes - a case study of a sea change in a major Australian government department", Internet Research, Vol. 8 No. 3. https://doi.org/10.1108/intr.1998.17208caf.002Download as .RIS
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The role of interactive technologies in democratic policy processes - a case study of a sea change in a major Australian government department
The role of interactive technologies in democratic policy processes a case study of a sea change in a major Australian government department
This research examines linkages between interactive technologies and democratic policy processes, with a focus on the organisational level. Because the technologies, the democracy issues and the organisational structures are part of a wider context, it was necessary to take a broad, systems approach in discovering underlying patterns. The intention was to develop a model of how interactive technologies might contribute to effective policy processes, and to develop a model of how these technologies can best support democratic governance.
The research grew out of professional experiences with both government policy and interactive technology. One hypothesis is that the values and assumptions of globalised technology flow through to shape government policy regarding worker participation and technology use, and that these in turn contribute to patterns at the organisational level. These flow-on effects may, in fact, be part of the defining characteristics of globalisation. Two specific research questions arising from this hypothesis are:
To what extent are the cost efficiencies which drive electronic commerce and globalisation being applied to policy processes?
Are the applications of interactive technology in government being used to support democratic values?
The impacts of technology are not linear and uniform, but complex and often contradictory in their detail. Theories from several disciplines inform the research. Considine (1994) sees policy as a form of communication, in which factors and their networks use resources and decisions to promote their value systems. Thus all policy is an expression and affirmation of values, with participation as the primary structure for its development and implementation. Participation "facilitates rational deliberation, creates and communicates moral principles, and expresses personal and group affects and needs" (Considine, 1994, p. 130)
A second theoretical foundation is Dahl's (1989) definition of democracy: "a unique process of making collective and binding decisions" (Dahl, 1989, p. 5). The criteria for democratic process are effective participation, voting equality at the decisive stage, enlightened understanding, and control of the agenda. This definition emphasises widespread access to information and participation in decision making at all critical points. Another theoretical foundation examines the link between technology and democracy. Sclove (1995), offers a set of democratic design criteria, based on his synthesis of the literatures on social impacts of technology and democratic theory. His analysis reveals the realm of technology choice as itself a value-laden, and seldom-challenged set of policies.
Each of these theoretical perspectives transcends scale: they apply at many levels, and for many systems. Taken together, they can be used as a democratic litmus test for the policy processes and technological uses for many structures and organisations. They are equally applicable to a firm, a department, a community, or a nation. Furthermore, if accepted in principle, these concepts support and legitimate the democratic process. The research is therefore normative, as it seeks a model which supports democratic values and processes.
The major case study of this research project is a key policy agency in the Australian government. Thus, considerations of industrial democracy, as applied within the agency, offer an important area of comparison with the theoretical definitions of policy and democracy. Other factors influencing electronic democracy in the public service have been discussed elsewhere (Geiselhart, 1996).
A minor case study was an action research experiment with an interactive site for citizen participation called the Canberra Commons. This created Australia's first Web-based election debate, with participation from about 20 candidates in the teritory elections in February 1998.
The major case study is ethnographic in the widest possible sense, as it draws not only on observer participation in the target organisation, but also on corroborating evidence from other public sector agencies. As Australia's seat of government, Canberra is still dominated by the public sector, and opportunities abound for sharing experiences. The remarkable consistency of this additional, incidental evidence reinforces the conclusions of the principal case study.
The case study spanned approximately two years, encompassing more than 65 informants, scores of documents and hundreds of hours of on-site observations to provide a broad base for data collection. Yin (1989), suggests that in a complex, diverse and rapidly-changing environment, a qualitative study is considered the most appropriate way to reach an understanding of how these factors affect an organisation, and therefore its use of interactive computer systems.
This approach, which looks at the impacts of public sector reforms on the organisation as a workplace, rather than examining the outputs, contrasts with much of the literature on public sector reform. For example, Gregory (1997), looked at attitude change of public servants in Canberra and Wellington, using a typology-based survey of senior public servants only. He notes that such surveys are a "blunt instrument" which require in-depth interviews as a follow-up. The emphasis in the current methodology was on the workers, their views and insights. The ethnographic aspect was also considerably enriched by the researcher being also a senior officer with an understanding of public sector culture and practice.
A surprising number of major changes affected all aspects of the organisation. This intense rate of change is one of the features that makes this case study fairly typical of public sector agencies in the 1990s. Pressures on the department included a change of government and secretary, a new industrial relations framework, mandatory outsourcing of information technology, a new desk-top system, and significant downsizing with at least one major restructure.
Given this number of change factors, it would be surprising if the internal development of information technology systems proceeded in an uninterrupted path with a clear vision. In fact, the primary finding of the case study was the interdependence of the interactive technology with wider organisational change. The technical advisers on the desk-top technology were just one set of actors in this area of internal policy, and not generally very powerful ones. The implementation of outsourcing of computer operations towards the end of the study period also decreased the influence of computer staff.
Use of interactive systems in internal processes was found to be strongly dependent on managerial intent. This confirms studies of computer-mediated communication in organisations which have found that the uses of the technology tend to echo existing social and cultural norms in an organisation (Mantovani, 1994).
By extension, changes in the uses of the technology might be predicted to reflect changes in the internal culture and social landscape. In the case study, democratic process in internal policy issues eroded markedly over the period of observation, with a few notable exceptions. An emphasis on individual performance, greater managerial control over rewards, a less-open atmosphere characterised by "fear and favour", and an exodus of experienced staff all influenced the development of interactive systems in the organisation. Transparency of managerial decisions and participation in key issues decreased. Some informants became more reluctant to discuss matters, another spoke of a "psychological holocaust" on the human resources level. There was a trend away from textualising personal opinions on the internal e-mail system. A strong neo-liberal management sought to move the organisation "from learning to earning".
Some areas within the organisation continued to apply team work principles and encouraged participation. These were, however, not formally evaluated or put forward as models for other areas. Information management remained at an instrumental level, and an experiment to develop a discussion database was not maintained.
At this stage, the evidence seems to support the researcher's concept of a "fractal" model of interactivity. The values and pressures of a globalised and highly convergent telecommunications system (Herman and McChesney 1997), leads to similar opportunities for both democratic interaction and authoritarian suppression of participation at different scales of observation. The conflicts inherent in large-scale democratic experiments in electronic information sharing (Hauben and Hauben 1997, Minnesota e-democracy project), appear to present themselves equally at the organisational level.
Canberra Commons URL: http://canberracommons.netinfo.net
Considine, M. (1994), Public Policy: A Critical Approach, Macmillan, Melbourne.
Dahl, R.A. (1989), Democracy and its Critics, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT and London.
Geiselhart, K. (1996), "Factors affecting the spread of electronic democracy in the Australian Public Service", Proceedings of AUSWEB 96, the Second World Wide Web Conference, Jupiter's Casino, Gold Coast, Queensland, 7-9 July.
Gregory, R. (1997), "After the reforms: some patterns of attitudinal change among senior public servants in Canberra and Wellington", Australian Journal of Public Administration, Vol. 56 No. 1, pp. 82-99.
Hauben, M. and Hauben, R. (1997), Netizens on the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet, IEEE Computer Society Press, Los Alamos, CA.
Herman, E.S. and McChesney, R.W. (1997), The Global Media The New Missionaries of Global Capitalism, Cassell, London.
Mantovani, G. (1994), "Is computer-mediated communication intrinsically apt to enhance democracy in organizations?", Human Relations, Vol. 47 No. 1, pp. 45-62.
Minnesota E-Democracy (1997), accessed from the Web page with URL: http://www.e-democracy.org/ 15 December.
Sclove, R.E. (1995), Democracy and Technology, The Guilford Press, New York, NY.
Yin, R.T. (1989), Case Study Research Design and Methods, Sage, London.