Most likely, you’ve been wondering about the future of high technology in the public sector (doesn’t everybody?) Is it a tool? A technique? A trick? A tragedy?
That’s a good question, highly deserving of an answer. Too bad there are none close at hand.
You’re doubtless aware of the transformational folk. They’re evangelists, insisting that the technology that drives e-government in all its permutations is ushering in a total “transformation” of government. For them, the public sector is a brave new world of infinite possibility.
They’re on to something, to be sure; the manipulation of all those ones and zeroes has had a huge impact on everything from the way people file taxes to the way government organizes itself. And there’s more to come, much more.
But as University of Toronto management professor Sandford Borins makes clear in the excellent primer Digital State at the Leading Edge, transformation lies in the eye of the beholder. “The answer [to the question of transformation] clearly depends on what is meant by IT, an ever-expanding set of practices as well as tools, both increasingly diverse and increasingly pervasive. It depends still more on what is meant by transformation.”
Borins and his colleagues in Digital State helpfully make the general question of e-government more specific, identifying three different classifications of e-government – the electronic workplace, the electronic citizen and the electronic client. And Borins himself emerges cautiously with the view that there has indeed been something like transformation. Its components include “the increase in the transparency of government; the restructuring of its workforce; the heightened immediacy and faster pace of political and bureaucratic work; the increased requirement for, and means of, collaboration; and the advent of organizational restructuring due to integrated service delivery and support organizations.”
Even given that kind of expert, rigorously thought analysis, there remain real questions of just what government can and should be expected to do with the technology resources at its disposal. Some observers are dubious; elsewhere in Digital State, for example, Oregon academic Fred Thompson asks some tough questions:
“Can government copy the digital model, organizing itself into alliances of networks, sharing top management, core competencies, and a common culture, and using computers to chart activities and operational flows? Can it use real-time information on operations made possible by modern IT systems to pass the exercise of judgment down into the organization, to wherever it is most needed, at service delivery, in production, or to the client? Can government abandon its hierarchies, its need to push operating decisions to the top of the organization, or its stove-piped functional organizations? Can it consistently maintain focus and communicate goals, foster information access and communication throughout the organization, link incentives to performance, hire the best people, and invest in human capital, as well as computers and software?”
Outside academia and government, some specialists are even more skeptical. Adam Greenfield, a visionary type who tries to imagine a world in which everything – from the clothes you’re wearing to the house you live in – is actually a computer, basically dismisses government as a player in the field generally.
He comes close, in his book Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, in the sense that he sees the possibility of a Tennessee Valley Authority-styled push to make broadband available to absolutely everyone in the United States. And he implicitly includes government when he talks about the three forces which will determine the shape of “everyware” – designers, marketers (top of his heap, by the way) and regulators: “regulators, too, will play a part; given everyware’s clear potential to erode privacy, condition public space, and otherwise impinge on the exercise of civil liberties, there is a legitimate role for state actors here.”
But that’s about it. Generally, for Adam Greenfield, “the principles we’ve enunciated can be meaningfully asserted through voluntary compliance.”
Others, to be sure, locate the issue elsewhere and find a clear – if staggeringly difficult – role for government. Montreal analyst Hervé Fischer puts it this way in his recent book Digital Shock: “bureaucrats must design new regulatory models that allow for an equitable decision-making framework while balancing the general interest with individual needs. They must also consider the dynamic of change, because regulations cannot be modified every six months; and they must realistically re-examine rules, numbers and company risk.
“Thus, laws and regulations in the Web present serious challenges to governments and courts. Cyberspace is a permissive territory that accommodates an increasing volume of human activity and commercial transactions. All of this should be subject to democratic law, posing an enormous challenge for public administrators in the real world. At the very least, cyberspace is a practice field on which we can learn how to adapt to the new while protecting our precious democratic values. On this field we can also rethink humanism, law, and the role of the state.
“We will inevitably experience future shock, to use Alvin Toffler’s term. And the shock of the digital affects all of us, including the state and its bureaucrats…”
On the other hand, it all gives managers everywhere in and around high tech something to do. And really – how bad is that?
Robert Parkins is editorial director of Canadian Government Executive.
GTEC (Oct 15-17, Ottawa) is the annual celebration of technology’s contribution to public service. Some of the questions Robert Parkins raises will be addressed. Award winners, from projects that have made a difference, will be honoured. Leading private sector practitioners will be there, including Don Tapscott (of Wikinomics and Digital Divide fame) along with leading public sector practitioners, including the CIOs of the Government of Canada and of the City of Ottawa.
Ken Cochrane, the CIO for Canada, who will be speaking, said, “We are exploring a new age of innovation and collaboration. To me it is about horizontality, connecting with citizens, renewal, and engaging with employees.”
This year’s theme, “Government 2.0: Exploring a new age of innovation and collaboration,” will be the platform for exploring the potential of internet technologies to deliver simplified yet effective shared services to citizens across all levels of government. It will challenge traditional paradigms and align Canadian public and private thought leadership around next generation solutions for governments.
Speakers and participants will explore the dynamic business environments being driven by web 2.0 applications and solutions. They will discuss the evolution of internet-based technologies driving the “business of government.”
While GTEC is the annual meeting place for IT/IM decision-makers from the three levels of government, it is relevant to all public sector executives – in program delivery, policy development, and executive ranks. All are affected by IT, all must understand and relat