<html><head /> <body> <META http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=UTF-16"><title>Digital Government and the "End of the State"</title><meta name="keywords" content="electronic,information,internet,multivac,patrick,state,web,dunleavy,technology,government,bureaucracy,digital,"><table style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:larger; " align="center" border="0" width="50%"><tbody><tr> <td style="background-color:silver; border-color:white; border-left-style:none; border-style:none; " width="730"><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:larger; ">Digital Government and the "End of the State"</span></td> </tr> <tr> </tr> </tbody></table><br><table style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:medium; " align="center" bgcolor="white" border="0" width="50%"><tbody><tr> <td height="131" width="669"><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small;"><strong>Editors Introduction</strong></span><span style="font-family:Verdana; "></span><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; "><IMG SRC="auth_Dunleavy.jpg" WIDTH="80" HEIGHT="110" ALT="Dunleavy" VSPACE="10" HSPACE="10" BORDER="0" ALIGN="right"> Patrick Dunleavy (below) is optimistic about information technology (IT) and its ability to create a rosy democracy. He criticises the dystopian view of technology espoused most famously by Ian Angell, his colleague in information systems at the London School of Economic and Political Science. Using evidence from his own research in the UK's National Audit Office, he suggests that the government's use of the Web is characterised by inactivity and an inability to rise to the challenge, and not by rapid change. Ultimately, he believes the Web could shed more light on the workings of the state, thus empowering the public.</span><br> <br> <span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">New goods often bring out a rash in people--especially rash utopian or dystopian predictions. Utopians look forward to the improbable resolution of deeply ingrained social problems by quick technological fixes. Dystopians predict the improbable collapse of deeply entrenched social institutions from simple contact with the new products--the shock of the new. In the end, things are usually more complex, more boring and less alarming.</span><br> <br> <span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Social institutions assimilate and absorb the new goods, changing substantially in the process but not becoming transforming or disintegrating utterly. Our standard reaction has become, in the slightly cynical words of the American band R.E.M.: "It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine."</span><br> <br> <span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Could things be different with the Internet revolution?</span><br> <br> <span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">It doesn't seem all that likely if we just look at the technological end of things, for here the utopias and dystopias of today are following closely the standard sci-fi rules of yesteryear, such as extrapolating current trends to the nth degree. In the 1950s, Isaac Asimov wrote novels in which a single giant computer, MULTIVAC, took over world government and solved intellectual problems which had baffled humanity for generations. My favourite story is the one where MULTIVAC was asked where jokes come from, and after correlating all the available evidence it concludes that jokes were invented by space aliens as a method for exploring human psychology--the main evidence for this being that no one ever made up a new joke but always relayed ones told them by someone else.</span><br> <br> <span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Now the cyberpunk novelists have been making our flesh creep for a generation at least with Net-based fantasies of virtual-reality universes. In his now numerous publications, Ian Angell, from Information Systems at the LSE, has pictured a social universe already better drawn in Marge Piercy's 1985 novel, <I>Body of Glass</I>. She envisages a Net-based world run by "corps" (multinational corporations), where government has boiled down to an authoritarian environmental police (who enforce a death penalty for polluters). Large areas of the urban megalopolis have been relinquished to gangs and Mafia-style criminal organisation, and only a few small independent guild towns survive in the interstices to provide islands of relative democracy and liberalism.</span><br> <br> <span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Prof. Angell has a few variants of his own, my favourite being off-planet banking (which should feature in a James Bond film before long), but the basic picture is the same. But just as Asimov's MULTIVAC never materialised, and computers got smaller and more decentralized, not bigger and more unitary, so even extrapolating current technological paths remains a deeply problematic enterprise, not to mention predicting the interaction between social forces and technological changes.</span><br> <br> <span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Somewhere between the confident futurism that should only be the domain of novelists and the predominant backward-looking stance of the existing academic disciplines, there lies a more legitimate zone for innovative forms of social science enquiry to map the emerging lineaments of the twenty-first-century advanced industrial state.</span><br> <br> <span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">As an example of this kind of work I would point to the research which the LSE's Public Policy Group has just completed for the UK's National Audit Office, in a report called "Government on the Web." If the development of the Internet was a threat to democracy, then our extensive research within a wide range of civil-service organisations should have offered some signs of threatening developments, some evidence of the bureaucratic onslaught on our liberties which Ian Angell and Simon Davies are so exercised about.</span><br> <br> <span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Sad to say, the research team's experiences offered no indications of this kind of central planning actively mobilising bureaucracy. In some ways, we wished there had been more evidence of such ambition or capability. Our experience was of a degree of bureaucratic drift and inability to seize the implications of the Web era which made us alarmed about the pace of progress towards digital government. We think of the surprised reactions of civil servants at being asked for usage figures on their sites; their inability to track down a budget for Web and Internet spending; their assumption that change would take place at the leisurely pace of yesteryear; their happy ability to speak of "electronic transactions" and "information-age government" as being advanced by dealing with citizens over the telephone (an 1890s technology) rather than on paper (a Renaissance technology).</span><br> <br> <span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">The standout moments of our research included: <UL> <LI>The public-relations manager who proclaimed his complete responsibility for his agency's website, but then stopped the interview at a later point to ask, "What is this HTML you keep talking about?" <LI>Another Web manager who insisted that he could not change a single page on his website without ministerial permission, which in his view justified why almost nothing had altered in two years. <LI>The officials who explained that they spent only &#163;14 on their website out of every million pounds in their agency's running-costs budget because most of their customers did not have PC access--only to find, on looking at their site data, that more than 300,000 users a month were spending an average of 35 minutes per session on their site (around three times the average session length for business-facing agencies). </UL></span><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">We could go on, but the message would be the same.</span><br> <br> <span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Government agencies, along with many large corporations, confront severe difficulties in adapting to the challenge of the Web and Internet era. Corporations will have to evolve fast to survive in the marketplace, despite the normal get-outs of takeovers and acquisitions as substitutes for real organisational change. But government agencies are under no such pressure, and may tend to hold fast to outdated methods simply for fear of mucking up the large IT investments needed to adapt to the Web era.</span><br> <br> <span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">As I write (spring 2000), only a couple of hundred of the 67,000 employees in the UK's Benefits Agency yet have on their desktop a PC that can run a Web browser, let alone access their own agency's website over an intranet or the external Internet. Similarly, the Inland Revenue in Britain can muster only 1.5 percent of tax forms submitted online in 1999, meaning that thousands of employees are still re-keying the other 98.5 percent from paper forms. There is a familiar rivalry problem here: the employees and managers who make a livelihood out of the old ways are not going to particularly welcome "zero touch" technologies that consign their roles to a historical museum. And even if the large government organisations really want to push for the achievement of digital government, the chances that they will make a good job of getting there are relatively slim.</span><br> <br> <span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Culturally, politically, organisationally, historically--the limits in their path are myriad, subtle and close-binding. So (as ever) incompetence and complexity form a large part of the answer to why the current crop of IT dystopias are not going to happen.</span><br> <br> <span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">But the advent of the Internet, unlike other IT waves, also creates much more substantive grounds for optimism. Most other innovations in computing have strengthened the power of big bureaucracies against the little person. The diffusion of PCs cracked this trend a bit, but the Internet potentially could shatter it more completely. For once, the Web era holds out the promise of genuinely open government (backed by the power of rapid-reaction, cost-sharing online communities) as well as more efficient government. The cultural change that the British civil service needs to grasp in the Web era, and yet still finds hard to face, is a change towards making organisational operations visible in detail.</span><br> <br> <span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Within the next three years or so, US taxpayers will be able to see and manage their own tax account on the Web. In the same period, the tracking facility that lets you trace parcels you send via DHL or FedEx should let you trace your benefits application, your appeal against your property tax, the progress of your case through the National Health Service bureaucracy. The technology for this is all coming into place, and the social push is lively, even if only just beginning. So the utopians could yet be partly right: that the Internet could shed more public light on the workings of the state, could empower "isocratic administration" by individual people and enterprises, and could let civil society steal a march on state bureaucracies. The trick will be to make it so.</span><br><br><span style="font-size:medium; ">Relevant Links</span><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; "><A HREF="http://www.governmentontheweb.com" TARGET="_blank">Government on the Web</A> <BR> <A HREF="http://www.governmentontheweb.com" TARGET="_blank"">(www.governmentontheweb.com)</A></span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; font-style:italic; ">A version of this story first appeared in the Summer 2000 edition of LSE Magazine. Copyright The London School of Economics and Political Science.</span></td> </tr> </tbody></table> </body></html>