Transnational and Intergovernmental Electronic Communication: Policy Questions and Implications of the Emerging Global Information Network
By Steven L. Clift
Global Survival and Sustainable Infrastructure Graduate Course Institute for Future Studies, Stockholm, Sweden Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota
Note: It is now almost 1996. I currently coordinate the North Star Government Online project for the State of Minnesota and now find myself involved in projects that are addressing a number of the questions that I had raised back in 1993. With the development of the GOVNEWS initiative (http://ftp.sterling.com/govnews/) I thought now might be a good time to make this paper available online again. – Steven Clift
Note 2: It is now 2002. All of my current articles are available at: http://www.publicus.net When it comes to inter-governmental communication online, it is amazing how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.
Note 3: It is now 2009 and there is still lots here that is relevant.
It could be said that for the governments of the world to prepare now for the effects of the current information and communications revolution, would have been like the government preparing a program to deal with airport noise problems before the jet engine was built. With the development of each new technology and applications to use those technologies the way our societies operate and allocate resources shift. The changes that occur often have positive and negative results. The opinion someone has about those changes may also vary from person to person. Also, the infusion of new technologies and their effects is not static and the development of different technologies or adaptations by others in society often alter the original results.
The survival or strength of an institution depends on its ability to read and understand how the changing world around them might affect their work and purpose in society. Government organizations from national legislatures to local social service agencies operate in a complex and increasingly globalized economic and political system and are not immune from these shifts, especially as they relate to the use of information technologies in their work.
This paper will examine the development of intergovernmental and transnational data networks and explore the potential policy implications and challenges government institutions may face as a result. It will summarize some of the technological aspects of inter- networking, present examples of current application and efforts by governments, and explore some of the potential policy implications. It will conclude with proposals on how government can capture the positive benefits of electronic communication, and prepare itself to deal with the policy issues and potential downfalls as they emerge.
This paper centers on those countries that have developed more sophisticated information infrastructures and does not address these issues from the perspective of a developing nation.(1)
Information Technology and Networking
Over the last few decades governments around the world have invested billions of dollars into the research and development of new technology including high performance computing, communication devices, and data transmission networks. Examples include the High- Performance Computing and Communications (HPCC) and National Research and Education Network (NREN) in the United States, the European Strategic Programme for Research and Development in Information Technologies (ESPRIT), the European Nervous System (components of which address transnational electronic communication and will be presented later) and Japan’s New Information Processing Technology project of the Ministry of International Trade & Industry (MITI).
The following statement from the paper “Information Networks and New Technologies: Opportunities and Policy Implications for 1990’s” from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) sums up the general public purpose developed for most of these initiatives:
Information technology (IT) developments, originally driven by defence and space needs, are increasingly geared to meet commercial and industrial demand. It is now recognized as indispensable to many economic activities, and industry experts consider broader IT production and use as a basis for further economic and social development…. IT has become a strategic tool in the contemporary economic and political environment, as well as for the opening up of new markets and patterns of demand.(2)
Except for the mentioning the use IT as a strategic political tool, most government support of research and development in this sector has been geared toward building a competitive national industry, improving the collaboration of scientists and researchers, and in higher education. The benefits of IT have been conceptualized by these various projects in functionary terms or by sectors of the economy. The development of technological capacity is not generally presented as a means to improve processes. However, the creation of basic and more advanced applications helps explain how IT is becoming a tool that changes the way organizations work and communicate.
The OECD report is one of the few reports that presents the public sector as one of the beneficiaries of its own investment in IT research and development. It was not until the late summer of 1993, with the release of the Clinton Administration’s National Performance Review, that the notion of IT causing changes in the way government delivers services and makes decisions received high profile attention. It was estimated that Federal government investment in and the use of IT could save billions dollars over a number of years. How this will change the way government functions will be important to watch. Most of the literature on the effects of information technology and systems on organizations examine businesses and not government. While general observations can be drawn from that literature (group work across geographical distances, flattening of hierarchies, etc.) the public nature of government work and general lack of a firms profit motive and sale of products provides for enough of a difference to demand more study of IT impacts on public sector processes. This paper should bring out a number of those areas requiring research.
The current use of IT applications and the development of networking standards over the last decade has brought us to a point where local area computer networks can be linked to other computer networks via routers and high speed data backbone network connections. The “Open Systems” standards (OSI), the Government Open Systems Interconnet Profile (GOSIP), and TCP/IP Internet protocols are all contributing to a general government acceptance of the concept that government agencies need to move from proprietary computer systems to systems that can be networked and communicate with other systems based on a general set of operating standards. This is occurring, however slowly, at all levels of government in most countries that have highly developed information infrastructures. Countries that do not have developed infrastructures will likely use these protocols as they develop based on normal distribution patterns of technologies to the developing world.
Within the United States four or five states are considered leaders in the promotion of Open Systems for use by state government. The draft National Association of State Information Resource Executives (NASIRE) titled, “Serving the Citizenry through Opening the Enterprise,” it states that “the fact that standards are agreed upon by national or international organizations has little to do with adoption and use by an enterprise or a community of enterprises.” While many information resource offices have been policy advocates of Open Systems the actual movement in State agencies has been slow. The report argues:
If, instead of setting our goal to achieve Open Systems, we sought to open the enterprise and interconnect it to the world, we would have defined a practical goal. Also, as we look at “states” or “governments” as an enterprise, we are challenged to rethink “the organization” within which interconnectivity is required.(3)
This statement is a sign that government entities are, from their experience, moving toward Open Systems without integrating it into the work of their public mission or business plan.
A November 1993 report by Anderson Consulting titled, “Open Systems in Minnesota State Government: A Readiness Assessment” summarizes this State’s readiness for Open Systems:
¥ Minnesota is in the very early stages of readiness for open systems.
¥ Understanding and commitment to open systems have not significantly penetrated the State’s technology community. Most activity has been at the policy level. Policy progress has yet to be translated into concrete actions to move away from proprietary information technology toward open systems environments.
¥ Key enablers driving the State toward open systems are the needs to: 1)share data across the enterprise, 2) cut costs, 3) cooperate for service delivery, and 4) respond to market forces and federal mandates.
¥ The barriers to implementing open system environments in Minnesota state government are formidable, but not insurmountable. Those barriers are: Lack of knowledge, training and skill base, Perceived lack of industrial strength products in the marketplace, Lack of open systems champion, and Large installed base of proprietary legacy systems, Government fragmentation and fiefdoms, and Conversion cost.(4)
While Open Systems goes beyond the TCP/IP Internet connections, the State of Minnesota will have invested $25 million dollars in a state-wide high speed data network by late next year that will among other things provide for extensive Internet access, the next challenge is to migrate the hundreds of government systems to that network. We are already seeing government use of electronic mail over the Internet and a few State agencies and the State Legislature have put menu driven information on the Internet through an application called “Gopher.” This information is available to anyone in the world who is interested in looking at it.
Given the time it will take for most governments in different countries and levels within those countries to be inter-networked, this paper will begin exploring the possible interactions of governments based on current examples and efforts at a smaller scale. How will the various government institutions shape this environment for their benefit? What will the characteristics of this networked world be? What types of applications will they develop for it in the carrying out of their missions?
While more advanced applications and tools are being developed for the Internet on a regular basis the most commonly mentioned uses for these networks include electronic mail, file transfer, electronic data interchange (EDI), and remote access to databases and information. Once an organization adopts a basic level of connectivity it is unlikely that they will retreat from that. It could be compared with throwing away your fax machine because the process for sending a fax confused you at first. It is also predicted in the future that this will be the platform for the development of a digital information infrastructure that will include voice, video, and high speed transfer of extermely large quantities of data.
One of the most important communication tools used on electronic information networks are those that allow collaboration or automated communication among groups of people. There are thousands of electronic mail forums or lists that allow an individual to “broadcast” a message to those subscribed to that list. The parameters and openness of these forums vary. Some may involve only ten individuals on a private list or thousands on a public list. Some lists are moderated, some allow anyone to post, some only deliver an information service from the list owner. This allows for the creation of “affinity networks.” The OECD report describes the characteristics of these networks:
Such “affinity” networks may result in national and international networks. In principle, it would then be possible to receive and exchange information presented in whatever form in real time, from a large number of intelligent stations (human and PC and/or intelligent work stations), on whatever subject, worldwide, coupled with feedback at the local or global level. Such networks could be used to sense or act on all types of parameters (economic, social, environmental, etc.) when designing, producing and marketing goods and services or any other activity or process.(5)
Current Efforts, Examples and Analysis
The European Community
One of the most advanced policy documents on transnational data exchange between governments comes from the European Community. It is titled “Proposal for a Council Decision on a series of guidelines for trans- European data communications networks between administrations.” What stands out about the creation of an IDA programme (interchange of data between administrations) in European Community is the existence of an articulated purpose. Greater data sharing and communication will “enable national administrations and the Community institutions and bodies to meet their new responsibilities” and contribute to the “effective management of the Community area without frontiers.”(6) This situation includes a supranational organization in the inter-networking among nation states which has special characteristics not present elsewhere.
This case illustrates how supranational institutions like those in the European Community view the potential usefulness of moving toward open and integrated information systems. It could also be viewed as a way for the EC institutions to strategically place themselves in the middle of information flows between the member states and assist them in the management of “common agricultural, environment, education, and health policies.”
The EC is also a central organizing point that will invest resources in building applications to manage and add value to the electronic communication that occurs between governments. In the United States there is a need for more intergovernmental coordination, but the incentives for Federal agencies to create communication systems that may lead to a decentralization of their decision-making process and that may require them to share power with those included in their information flows make it less likely that Federal agencies will take the lead without management acceptence or political leadership. A new report released in December 1993 by the voluntary inter-agency Working Group on Government- wide Electronic Mail, titled “A Unified Federal Government Electronic Mail Users’ Support Environment” represents a movement by primarily government information technologists to move move forward. The report states, “Regardless of the approach chosen [specific IT applications and services], the Federal Government needs to see that our American society is plunging headlong into the world of electronic information flows, and that an insular, each-agency-for- itself approach will be detrimental to the Nation.”(7)
The EC contributions in this area, including efforts to create tools for language translation, will likely enhance their power and ability to manage the affairs of an integrated market. The use of Open System protocols by the EC also means that transborder data flows will not only expand from the EC at some point to the other nations of Europe as the report mentions, but to the entire world. It should be pointed out that Open Systems does not mean unrestricted access or non-secure communication. The tools and forums that the EC creates to improve communication between governments at all levels within the EC may result in the flow of information and ideas to governmental agencies in other countries dealing with similar issues.
In the United States the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties, and the International City/County Management Association among others, have created a service called Local Exchange. While it is not accessible through the Internet, subscribers from local governments all across the United States dial in with their computer and modem to share information on topics of interest to local governments. Their services include the creation of computer conferences geared to exchange information on specific issues, electronic mail, a database called “Local Government Solutions” that contains “one-page description of thousands of recent, successfully implemented problem-solving city and county programs, complete with names and numbers for follow-up information,” and abstracts of articles from more than 400 local government publications.(8)
With a fee based service like this, one of the incentives for people to participate relates directly back to the work they are doing with their local government. When they are able to improve their work, they will be more likely to exchange information that is useful to others in the service. This service also posts “Federal legislative alerts” which illustrates how governments may use the medium to organize themselves politically along lines of common interest.
As local governments begin gaining Internet connectivity these types of exchanges will occur more frequently between local governments in different countries. Will this allow new or innovative ideas to spread to various localities in a fraction of the time that it occurred in past? For example had local governments been inter-networked when the idea for the new German packaging laws emerged, where the manufacturer is essentially responsible for the packaging after the consumption of the product, would there have been local governments in the United States that would have adopted that policy early instead of waiting to determine the success of the German initiative. What implications does this have for industries that try and prevent regulatory ideas in one part of the world from gaining credibility in parts of the world? And moving beyond the use of this medium by local government staff, will local elected officials use it on a regular basis to communicate with each other and with their constituents? Will the range of interest groups from the local to international level use this medium to organize local political activity or attempt to set the local public agendas?
Legislatures and Parliaments
The United States Congress will complete a fiber optic network for the Capitol Hill complex within the next year that will allow for high speed data transmission and complete Internet connectivity. A report by the Congressional Research Service titled, “Congressional Reorganization: Options for Change,” states that the full impact of using advanced information technologies will not be known until they are used as universally as word processing is today.” Within this very political environment “developing such an advanced infrastructure will require a degree of cooperation and collaboration between congressional offices that is, so far, unprecedented.”(9)
Both the U.S. House of Representative and U.S. Senate have moved forward in the last few years with the research and database tools available electronically and a large portion of staff can now send and receive electronic mail to and from the Internet. The infrastructure envisioned by Stephen Gould of the CRS includes moving most of the printed information used by Congressional offices to electronic format, including bills, committee reports, etc., use of “groupware” software to “streamline congressional work processes,” and the use of video conferencing. It could be argued to explicitly plan for a system such as this, and deal explicitly with the political ramifications would be extremely difficult. It seems more likely that technology will advance within the walls of Congress and they will structurally respond to technology and not use IT as a tool to force reform.
In terms of more basic inter-networking the House Representatives launched a project to test electronic mail from constituents in about 6 member offices. Legislative institutions and staff are already overloaded with information and they operate to manage and control the information flow and do not desire to increase it. The pilot project requires that the people who want to send electronic mail must write to the Members office first and register in their system to verify that they live in the district. Unlike the White House which accepts electronic mail messages from anywhere and has a relatively high volume, this project has not generated high volumes of correspondence. In fact, many have been disappointed by the low volume of traffic. (This should change over the years as more of the public begins to use electronic mail services.) It could be argued that the qualities of electronic correspondence do not lend itself to the generation of high volumes of mail from one individual to a single office and the lack of residency in district may make the ease at which an incoming message can be deleted enough of a deterrence to prevent abuse of such a system. (The White House has set up a system that auto- responds to message to verify receipt and it is printed out and responded through normal postal channels.)
As Congressional staff have more experience and training on the Internet they will see it more as a staff resource tool. This is beginning to happen. The use of electronic mail forums will allow them to link into the currently established research networks that are involved with the issues they are assigned to. When they have a need to find information quickly and the databases provided to them do not return useful information, many will find posting a basic question to scores of experts in that field through one electronic mail address an attractive option. This same idea can be applied to legislatures and parliaments at both national and regional levels in all countries. Over time active staff on these networks will become aware of each other and new lists and forums will be created to suit their needs and perhaps create international networks of legislative staff.
The questions that can be raised in this are are many. How will this affect how the public agenda is set in a legislative body? Will increased communication result in a coalescing of political forces with similar ideologies or agendas across nations? And will this lead to the conceptual globalization of public problems and proposed solutions?
Policy Implications and Analysis
The paper will now examine a few overarching policy implications and factors that are important in the context of electronic communication and inter- networking.
With all the discussion of computers, data networks, and databases it is easy to lose sight of the fact that these networks are based on the interaction of people. The application of more advanced information technology allows the individual to expand their presence into other social, political, and economic circles that was not possible before at such a relatively low cost. Within an individuals organizational context the information and knowledge that a person has to contribute is most often transferred through human interaction.(10) So the electronic networks that a person is tied to are a foundation and information and input source and become represented by the actions and policy positions of an individual in their organization. The existence of a database may assist in making specific information available when needed, but time for the person to analyze and convert the information into applicable knowledge is important.
The various “affinity networks” can also be viewed in social terms. Like various groups in any society, there are norms, values, and rules that people operate by. It is often the case that people new to the medium of electronic communication conceptualize the receiver of their communication as a machine and not a person. With experience and an understanding that longer-term relationships with people are being built, a person will get the sense that this is a human network. And while people will be less likely evaluated on their physical characteristics or age, they will be scrutinized on their use of language and writing style, their ability to construct rational arguments or questions, personality quirks, or lack of substance that can be perceived easily in many situations.
One of the commonly stated effects of electronic communication and its ability to break through other communication and bureaucratic barriers , is that it flattens hierarchies that can lead to a decentralization of power. This has been most observed as IT has spread through corporations:
By its very nature, electronic mail blasts aside typical corporate hierarchies because the messages are undifferentiated – there is no fancy letterhead…. [it] “has produced a new social fabric for the R&D community that cuts across corporations and the hierarchy of organizations that creates a new kind of accessibility. It is easier to send e-mail to very important people, people whom you would never consider calling or writing.”(11)11
These lessons apply to interaction within a government agency and beyond. Not only will people within an organization gain new ways to access information that used to flow from the top of the organization, they will also be able to compare their own status and work effort to others they have built connections with in other government organizations. Information control is one of the prime sources of power a bureaucratic agency has. If the organization cannot maintain control over their information, their relationships with other government agencies will likely shift. These shifts are considered by many to be positive and it is argued by many that it will lead to a more efficient public sector.
As described earlier, information networks will change the way policy is developed. There are advantages to having the world at your finger tips, but that does not necessarily mean you will utilize those networks. For organizations and people to capture the potential in this area they need to rethink and plan for how they will use this resource and integrate it into their work. The problems of information overload, sifting through useless information, and the need for training will all need to be dealt with. Also, as we have observed with the prevalence of the fax machine, rapid communication does not necessarily bring about better policy. It may actually reduce the time people have to digest information and to create workable knowledge for use in determining policy directions. As the public sector has more experience with this type of communication we will have a better sense of how to address these issues or at least gain a better sense of our limits.
The use of electronic communication is often a good channel through which to better define the issues, but it does not necessarily bring you toward a solution. Over time weaker arguments (or granted, those with fewer in-house research resources) may become apparent. However, the relatively low cost of basic electronic mail may actually allow smaller voices to be heard. This may lead to the raising of more policy questions and require more work to be done to bring a policy issue to a point where policy makers at a certain site feel comfortable making a decision. One addendum to the inclusion of smaller voices is that strong economic and political interests will adapt to this technology as well and attempt to use it to their benefit.
The Media and Political Importance
The role of the media is very important in public policy. The use of IT has also revolutionized the way news flows around the globe. What will happen when more and more governments go straight to the people with their press releases in an attempt to inform the public or to influence public opinion? The Clinton Administration releases speeches and important documents electronically and NATO has a press release service on the Internet as well. The fact that the leader of the United States puts releases out for public consumption may spur more national governments and opposition parties to do the same.
Over the last year the number of articles in the popular press on the Internet, the National Information Infrastructure, etc. has numbered over a thousand. The year before it was about fifty. What happens when the Internet moves from being covered as a thing, to a respectable gauge from which of public feeling or interest can be determined? When will fifty people protest an issue electronically to a government entity become equated with fifty or say ten people physically picketing a government office? How will policy makers and government staff approach the Internet if it becomes a source for story ideas about what government is doing, not just related to technology? How will they react when they are quoted in their local paper from a message they posted to a public electronic mail list? And how will the media react when the public and government officials send their comments and opinions about stories directly to the reporters electronically?
Role of Government
The role of government in the economy and society is geared toward the promotion of economic growth through the market system and addressing issues related to social and educational development. The general trend in market countries is to move from more coercive regulation toward more non-coercive education of the consumer that will spur industrial and social changes driven by consumer demand. The predominant role for many government organizations is to compile and produce information for others to make decisions from. The expense involved with publishing and broadcasting often limits the amount of awareness a government organization can build from released information.
For example, a government might collect data on when an industrial plant has violated pollution standards. Through the use of IT, information may be readily available to the public and retransmitted by concerned local citizens to environmental groups across the country and used to put pressure on other offices in the corporation. This might influence the company to deal more seriously with their pollution problems or risk consumer backlash. Another example might be an international government organization that deals with human rights. They might not have the power to place sanctions on a country for human rights abuse, but they would be able to inform the humans rights and trade offices of the member countries on a regular basis and spur a coordinated response. This also raises the possibility that governments and citizens of different countries might become more deeply involved in monitoring and reacting to the domestic activities within other countries in areas beyond the normal pervue of foreign policy.
The overview of the policy implications and current efforts in the use of information technology networks sought to bring out some of the issues government will need to deal with. While improving the governments use of information technology and promoting increased inter- networking is important, the essential ingredient is the creation of a purpose for improved communication. Government organizations need to prepare for increased communications and where appropriate restructure their organizations and information flows to take advantage of the benefits of inter-networking.
To help this process along a few suggestions include:
¥ Collecting evidence and anecdotal stories about how the government has been made more efficient, effective, or that services provided to the public improved because of ideas imported from elsewhere.
¥ Setting up a few pilot initiatives that use current technologies to link government workers based on common interests between nations.
¥ The redirection of some of the public resources geared toward the R&D in technology toward the development and testing of applications in government.
¥ Create incentives for government workers to scan the global information networks for ideas on how to improve their work and their agency’s delivery of services and incentives for employees to share information and knowledge electronically.
¥ And create a role for the United Nations, UNESCO, the International Telecommunications Union, the OECD, and other international organizations to assist in the creation of government “affinity” groups based on potential areas of collaboration and to work to build the value of these forums for the participants through electronic group facilitation.
With projects like these and the ability of people and the ability of institutions interested in these issues to communicate through the established internetworking, it will be possible to capture the lessons for the public sector. In the near future perhaps we will see the creation on an international “affinity” group of people, advocates within the public sector, who are interested in developing initiatives to ensure that government moves forward in the application of electronic communication to improve its work.
1 A good source of information on the issues facing the developing world see Global Communication and International Relations (1993), written by Howard Fredrick.
2 OECD “Information Networks and New Technologies: Opportunites and Policy Implications for the 1990s,” Information Computer Communications Policy #30. (1992) p. 23 Note: I sent a general research request to a number of people on the Internet and asked if anyone had the e- mail address for Dieter Kimbel who wrote most of this article. After being referred to someone at the International Telecommunications Union who used to work at the OECD, I was given Dieter Kimbels e-mail address and have had correspondence in reference to my original research request.
3 NASIRE Report, “Serving the Citizenry through Opening the Enterprise.” Draft, August 1993. p. 1-4 This draft report was developed by the Open Systems Subcommittee of the Information Policy Committee of the NASIRE.
4 Anderson Consulting, “Open Systems in Minnesota State Government: A Readiness Assessment” (November 1993) p. 3
5 OECD “Information Networks and New Technologies: Opportunites and Policy Implications for the 1990s,” Information Computer Communications Policy #30. (1992) p. 33
6 European Commission, “Proposal for a Counncil Decision on aseries of guidelines for trans-European data communications networks between administration.” (March 1993) p. 8 Note: After I electronically released a draft of this paper on the Internet, I received a few comments back that were more skeptical of the European Communities actual implementation in this area. The general consensus was that it will take some time before the various government bureaucracies start major electronic communication among member states.
7 Working Group on Government-wide Electronic Mail, Integrated Services Panel. “Final Report: A Unified Federal Government Electronic Mail Users’ Support Environment.” Part I, near end. (December 1993)
8 Public Technology Inc. “Local Exchange.” – flyer and information packet
9 Gould, Stephen. “Employing Information Technology to Facilitate the Conduct of Congressional Business.” Chapter 9 from Congressional Reorganizations: Options for Change. (Sept. 1992) p. 62
10 Grosser, Kerry. “Human Networks in Organizational Information Processing.” Annual Review of Information Science and Technology p. 349-50
11 Tekla, Perry and John Adam. “E-mail pervasive and persuasive.” IEEE Spectrum. (October 1992) p. 28 . The subquote is attributed to Lucky at AT&T Bell Laboratories.
Anderson Consulting, “Open Systems in Minnesota State Government: A Readiness Assessment” (November 1993) p. 3
European Commission, “Proposal for a Counncil Decision on aseries of guidelines for trans-European data communications networks between administration.” (March 1993)
Gould, Stephen. “Employing Information Technology to Facilitate the Conduct of Congressional Business.” Chapter 9 from Congressional Reorganizations: Options for Change. (Sept. 1992)
Grosser, Kerry. “Human Networks in Organizational Information Processing.” Annual Review of Information Science and Technology
NASIRE Report, “Serving the Citizenry through Opening the Enterprise.” Draft, (August 1993).
Public Technology Inc. “Local Exchange.” – flyer and information packet
OECD “Information Networks and New Technologies: Opportunites and Policy Implications for the 1990s,” Information Computer Communications Policy #30. (1992)
Tekla, Perry and John Adam. “E-mail pervasive and persuasive.” IEEE Spectrum. (October 1992)