Current Public Administration Magazine (June - 2015) - Computers & Administrative Reform

Sample Material of Current Public Administration Magazine

Information and Communication Technology


E-government usually refers to the use of IT within government to achieve more efficient operations, better quality of service and easy public access to government information and services. For example, Senators Lieberman and Thompson define e-government as a way “to better use IT advances to achieve greater effectiveness and to provide citizens easy, electronic access to government programs, services and information.” E-democracy usually refers to greater citizen participation in democratic processes.

The US experience with IT in government fails to support the reform hypothesis. The benefits of IT use are largely focused on administrative efficiency, and not on reform of administrative organization, practices, or behavior. We see two underlying assumptions that govern the reform hypothesis as it has been articulated: that reform is required in government, and that IT can be used to carry out such reforms. We question both of these assumptions.

The reform hypothesis suggests that reform is necessary without specifying why. Government organizations may be flawed and subject to improvement, but that does not mean that are doing a poor job at their objectives. Most government organizations are bureaucracies with hierarchically organized distributions of authority, resources and responsibility flowing downward to work units, and information about organizational performance flowing back upward as a means of control. Most government managers want to keep organizations that way, for good reasons. The bureaucratic form is highly refined from many decades of continuous study and improvement. It has evolved a comprehensive set of conventions that work quite well at doing complicated tasks with reasonable performance on a sustained basis over many years. Government managers understand this form of organization, which makes them experts at using it to accomplish governmental objectives. None of this suggests that managers are averse to performance improvements – indeed, the US research clearly shows senior government managers are strongly supportive of efforts to improve efficiency, productivity, and organizational control. What about the current system is broken? The reform hypothesis does not say.

IT application in the US actually fits the agenda of improved government within the established bureaucratic model. For example, computerization in financial systems provides new information and control mechanisms simultaneously to senior executives, central financial managers and department heads. Subordinates using such systems might find themselves under greater financial surveillance from their supervisors, but they also gain greater control over the details of their budgets, especially with respect to patterns of spending through real-time, accurate information about current balances. These systems allow managers at any level to enact immediate and across-the-board changes affecting subordinates, such as the elimination of funds for all “open” positions, enactment of budget cuts, assignment of overhead expenses, and so forth (Kraemer, Dutton and Northrop, 1980). This effect of IT use is not power-neutral: it reinforces the general hierarchical structure of bureaucratic organization even while giving managers at each level greater leverage over the operations below.

Even in cases where there are good reasons to reform government, the application of IT has a poor record as a lever for change. The short-run impacts of IT use have been far less pervasive and dramatic than forecast. Orientations, tasks, and interactions among managers and workers might change, but the changes in standard operating procedures tend to be modest. It is more common that IT is made to conform to existing behavior and practice than to change such practice. Two sets of case studies covering thirty years of computing in cities (Kraemer, King, Dunkle and Lane, 1987) and federal agencies (Westin and Laudon, 1986) indicate that reform has been limited mainly to the information processing function within organizations, and not to the broader aspects of organizations. The indirect influence of information technology to achieve genuine reform within the political-administrative system is far less powerful than the direct intervention of legislative and judicial change. In theory, IT might lead to new administrative structures; in practice, it does not and it probably should not .


Proponents of the reform hypothesis can respond to the foregoing analysis with two objections. First, it can be claimed that much of the evidence presented in the analysis is from studies of government IT application prior to the 1990’s, when the Internet became a major force. Second, it is possible to point to the transformation of business organizations using IT during the boom and argue that similar changes can affect government. Both are fair observations, and deserve appropriate responses.

It is true that much of the research cited in the arguments above was done in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, and that important changes occurred between the 1990’s and the present. Nevertheless, the studies cited were very careful to account for the actual changes that might be associated with the application of IT to specific tasks in government organizations, and not to changes that were specific to particular technologies. The reform hypothesis was an explicit focus of much of this research, and every effort was made to find evidence for the hypothesis.

These systematic studies refuted the hypothesis in fundamental ways that were relevant not only for the thirty year period of the studies, but more generally into the 1990’s. The studies done since that time (e.g., Fountain, 2002) corroborate the basic findings of that earlier work—IT has not reformed public administration.

The argument that recent experience in business proves the power of IT to reform organizations is worth considering carefully. As noted earlier, IT has brought major productivity gains to business organizations (Jorgensen, Ho, and Stiroh, 2003), and in most cases those gains are specifically tied to changes in the ways organizations do business (Brynjolfsson and Hitt, 2003).

A good example is seen in the personal computer industry (Dedrick and Kraemer, 2003). Competitive market forces required firms to change the organization of their activities from vertical, supply-driven models to virtual, demand-driven models to better match supply and demand and avoid the cycles of excess inventory and product shortages that had plagued PC companies. Dell Computer pioneered this change, which just happened to fit well with the capabilities of the Internet, and was soon copied as it took market share from the other vendors.

PC makers reorganized their activities around information processes—order management, planning and coordination and customer relationship management. This allowed them to substitute information for inventory and to respond to market signals more quickly and effectively. IT did not directly create new value in the PC industry; it allowed information processes to be redefined in ways that improved efficiency and added value to the customer.

While this dramatic example is compelling, it is important to note that the catalyst of industry change was a company – Dell Computer – that was a relative newcomer to an industry that had already been destabilized by eroding profitability and intense competition. Dell did not so much reform the PC industry as create an entirely new and superior model for the industry. Other dramatic examples of business change associated with IT use, such as Wal-Mart, and e-Bay, show a similar pattern of forcing dramatic re-thinking of the whole business enterprise. There is much to be gained from studying these radical shifts in business processes, but it is also wise to note that many companies that tried to change other industries failed completely and disappeared when the boom went bust.

Business organizations are driven mainly by market forces, which encourage radical innovation and can be characterized by Schumpeter’s “gales of creative destruction.” Government organizations, in contrast, are driven by political/institutional forces that are not and cannot be subjected to destructive changes without severe consequences for their constituents. This does not mean that governments have nothing to learn from the changes seen in the business world. If nothing else, the examples from business prove that even well-established production systems such as those in business can be changed dramatically in a relatively short period of time to produce results that are of benefit to consumers. At minimum, these examples provide hope that government services can be improved in ways that bring benefits to citizens through careful application of IT. For that to happen, the leadership of government organizations must establish the broader goals of the reform efforts, develop new models of electronic governance and electronic service delivery, and then bring IT carefully into consideration. Today’s e-government initiatives are part of a broader government reform agenda that emphasizes customer service and greater responsiveness to citizens (National Performance Review, 1993; Executive Office of the President, 2003). If this is indeed the will of the existing governmental power structure, it is likely that IT can play a role in the reform.

In order to understand its implications, the use and impact of IT in government needs to be studied and analyzed on a continuing basis. The paucity of systematic, empirical studies from the 1990’s onward is disturbing especially reports of massive information systems failures by the US General Accounting Office. Public administration scholars and others need to the big issues of IT and high level institutional change.

As noted at the beginning of this paper, Heinrich Reinermann has been an outstanding champion of the need to improve government in all respects. He also has been a true believer in the power of information technology to facilitate such reforms. His zeal in this is driven by the hope for better government, and his exhortations have the laudable character of spurring public administrators to think more creatively and carefully about the possibilities that new technology bring to the age-old quest for better government. Throughout our years of association with Professor Reinermann it has been our honor and pleasure to challenge him at every turn, to question his ideas and to force him to answer. In this he has been a most worthy adversary, and a most gracious colleague. We must leave for future scholars the question of deciding which of the arguments that have circulated among us were right and which were wrong. We believe, nonetheless, that history will recognize Professor Reinermann as a man of insight and courage who would never settle for good when better was possible.

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