Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Recent Readings 1

Ideas from recent readings

I want to use the blog to also develop and evolve my thinking and to share reflections of recent readings. These pieces are not meant to be comprehensive reviews of articles or books but more the ideas or bits and pieces that have struck a chord with me.

1. Herbert Kubicek “Third-generation Freedom of Information in the Context of E-Government: The Case of Bremen, Germany” The End Users’ View 275-286 in G. Aichholzer & H. Burkert (Eds.), Public Sector Information in the Digital Age: Between Markets, Public Management and Citizens’ Rights. Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, Cheltenham. 2004

Kubicek ponders why it is difficult to implement appropriate FOI procedures despite recognition of the value or merits of a basic right to freedom of information. (275)

Arguments against FOI implementation are generally focused on conflict with privacy and administration and other costs. He argues that the ‘pros and cons have been exchanged for more than 10 years. And the discussion moves in circles.” (276) A change in paradigm is needed to overcome objections to FOI and avoid “circular discussions and to keep up with changes in society and public administration in light of the information/knowledge society and e-government.” (276)

Writing from a computer science perspective Kubicek adds an interesting layer of analysis to FOI.

Kubicek discusses the issue of fees but contrasts the charges for an indeterminate ‘fishing’ or searching exercise and the appropriate fees in a well organisied system where users are assisted to target requests (along lines of the Australian Law Reform Commission and Administrative Review Council Report No. 77 in 1996 recommendations on fees) (277)

“All second-generation FOI legislation implicitly supposes that the citizens know exactly which document or file they want to access and that they are able to articulate this in the terminology of the administration.’ (277)

[The concept of waves of FOI development – see Al Roberts' Black Box or versions of development -and my software analogy of Australian FOI design ie versions 1.0 to 1.(?) in “Freedom of Information: The experience of the Australian states - an epiphany?” Federal Law Review Vol 29, 2001 , 343-358) is an interesting one].

“Access to information requires orienting or meta-information.” (277)

Role traditionally played by journalists, librarians and other information specialists. [a point made by Robert Hazel – article title escapes me]. In many jurisdictions this role is either explicitly, or implicitly, allocated to FOI officers who are left with the task of (if they are willing, resourced, applicant orientated or trained to act as an information guide. However many FOi systems enter a downward spiral (often due to under resourcing – a key point from the Canadian Access to Information Task Force Report) where information orientation is withdrawn and consequently requests become more time consuming and occasionally become a little more than a “guess what is in my hand” game.

Paradoxically the world wide web has seen the development of Google, other search engines and services (Wikipedia etc) that support or supply this information access infrastructure/capacity ((277).

“Original FOI legislation followed a pull model of information provision.” (279) that requires an interested citizen to make the effort to request (needing appropriate meta-information or access infrastructure) – very costly, disruptive (a theme addressed in the Canadian Access to Information Task Force Report 2002 and my Spin article - "Freedom of Information and the delivery of diminishing returns or how spin doctors and journalists have mistreated a volatile reform," in The Drawing Board: An Australian Review of Public Affairs, Volume 3, Number 2: March 2002, 187–207.)

A push strategy reduces cost, helps target information, tries to ensure or improve information quality. This would avoid the Harry Arthurs critique of ‘fishing for fragments of information’ or the Geoffrey Palmer observation that the documentary trail/record only tells part of the story. In a pull environment the best you can hope for is a partial (or at times) unhindered access to the documentary record whereas in a push environment that original documentary record should be supplemented by reflection, commentary or subsequent knowledge.

Kubicek argues that we need to try and re-conceive our idea of FOI to help realise the promise or potential of an information society. He suggests a trajectory for 3rd generation FOI (with an interesting diagram) which would proceed from pull to push, and from dispersed listings (or nonlistings) to comprehensive user-centred indexing. (280)

This analysis of non-user-centered FOI highlights one of the key weaknesses or deficiencies of FOI. Indeed a lot of e-government activity is very much motivated aby and designed to be government-centric.

In the last part of the article Kubicek explores the impediment, or dragging effect of trying to manage/implement e-government purely from the perspective or focus of internal users/stakeholders. He advocates ‘back-office integration’ to integrate internet and intranet operations. (284-285) He argues that “using filters, the same databases can be open for access by citizens.” (285) A position Al Roberts explores in his chapter Liquid Paper in Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age.

Kubicek argues rather than constructing an intra-government version of e-government where we subsequently attempt to place a FOI/access regime over the top “the access of citizens should be included as one of the knowledge objectives within the knowledge management cycle.” (285)

The concept of a knowledge management cycle is an interesting one – definition of knowledge objectives, identification of relevant knowledge areas and elements then “acquisition, structuring and indexing are followed by distribution, monitoring and evaluation of usage, maintenance and revision of objectives,” (285)

Most FOI schemes would be considered poor or dysfunctional knowledge management systems, This was a critique of the FOI process in Canada by the Access to Information Review Task Force that FOI failed to be conceived of or used as a learning tool.

In Kubicek’s view a knowledge management perspective puts a dynamic view on data and information. (285)

This argument has a lot of resonance with the insights of the Canadian Access to Information Task Force derived from their system(s) analysis of FOI.

I remember once getting a phone call from a South Australian economics academic (after I had appeared on a local radio show) asking what were the measurable benefits or gains – or how do we assess – the impact of FOI. A recent study commenced by the Constitutional Unit at University College London on evaluating the impact of an FOI Act may help give us a response to this question.

Kubicek’s article links to another set of recent reading

2. John Taylor – The Information Polity in William H Dutton (ed) Society on the Line: Information Politics in the Digital Age, Oxford University Press 1999, 197-199.

This brief overview of Taylor’s concept explores the impact/relationship of ICT on public administration.

Taylor states “As the governments of many countries come to redefine their governance processes through the intensive application of ICTs, so we are provided with opportunities to explore the characteristics of the emergent ‘information polity’.

In an earlier article Taylor and Bellamy (1997) explained that five sets of relationships lie at the heart of the information polity –

Taylor makes the point that whilst theoretically new computer networks, systems and processes pose challenges to “long-standing organizational arrangements with the machinery of government …Organizational arrangements establish powerful interests which both shape and resist change, however, and outcomes are shaped from the mutual adjustments made with them.” (197)

At their most benign these system legacies are a major drag on new developments whether in the ICT area (Taylor’s focus) or FOI. Therefore Taylor sees the need to focus not just on the new system’s, processes but to analysis the ‘evolutionary nature of the political system, or polity.” (198).

For Taylor this focus on the relationships of an information polity has a powerful explanatory power.

For me the concept of an information polity or information polities is very interesting because it encourages (as with Stiglitz’s information asymmetry) to ask what was the nature of the information polity (or what type of information asymmetry existed in jurisdiction X) before FOI was introduced and 5, 10, 20 years on what has happen to that information polity or the level and degree of information asymmetry. There would be some interesting single country and comparative research studies that could be developed from applying this analysis.

3. Taylor applied the concept of information polity and analysis in John Taylor, Miriam Lips and Joe Organ , “Freedom with Information: Electronic Government, Information Intensity and Challenges to Citizenship” in Richard Chapman and Michael Hunt (ed) Open Government in a Theoretical and Practical Context, Ashgate 2006

This article explores how “new forms of citizen identification in electronic government may be enabling governments to reshape their relationship to citizens” (125) . The article focuses on UK but has wider applicability.

This article defines an information polity as a “political system made comprehensible by the information that flows, or fails to flow, around its constituent parts. The relationship between departments of government, between government and other agencies including voluntary and private sector bodies, between administrators and politicians the governmental system and the citizen, are essentially informational.” (136)

Taylor et al argue that the adoption of an information polity analysis allows or encourages “an x-ray understanding of the body politic.” (136) The authors conclude that using an information polity analysis leads to a number of more interesting research questions in particular “What is actually happening to the information asymmetries that exist between government and the citizen? Are they becoming narrower or wider in a contemporary polity characterised by both freedom with and freedom of information?” (136) They also suggest that this analysis concentrates our research into understanding information flows, variable intensity and changes in informational relationships. This fits well with a number of themes in Kubicek’s article and my recent work (Freedom of Information Practices and the forthcoming work with Peter Sebina – Information Flows).

Taylor et al argue that this intensity and recourse to new levels and types of citizen identification and information access has occurred simultaneously with the introduction of FOI in the UK. So using Taylor’s information polity concept the information networks, relationships etc have undergone a profound change.

Taylor et al argue that there has developed an electronic mixed economy (greater recourse to private entities and non0-government organizations to deliver/administer services – requiring different types and levels of access to government e-information. The authors wonder “does the virtual relationship, based as it is upon new flows of data, supervene and thereby over-ride the nominal, expressed relationship that assumes independence?” (129)

Taylor et al argue that projects such as “Gateway” (a single entry portal to government services – over 5 million users, 50 government services in 2004) that relies on a variable trust profile will create in this particular information polity a ‘layering of citizenship’ (129-130). “The most trusted layers of citizens on the top and the least trusted at the bottom, with as many percentage layers in between as governments chooses to assign. Those citizens with the highest trust ratings will find on-line service transactions with government easier to navigate and conclude than those from lower ratings.” (130)

Taylor et al track how the expansion of the capacity, and the application of personalized service provision in e-government (accumulating browsing information and other data) not only reduces information asymmetries between service providers and citizens but also creates a new informational relationship with governments. (131-132) They argue that on-line personalization and modification of services delivered to citizens, at the moment, is more about changes to service delivery as a consequence of government collecting more information ( due to responses to security threats, technological capacity etc) on users than it is about “empowerment of citizen groups to devise public policy solutions.” (132)

In the terms of Kubicek there is a move towards a more sophisticated “push” of information to targeted audiences but absent a citizen centered focus. Taylor et al accept this as a citizen-centric approach but I would still lean towards describing it as government-centric (the drivers, focus and efficiencies are more government orientated and initiated whilst the citizen enhancements/benefits are welcomed by-products).

For Taylor et al this information gathering – in order to tailor services – allows for and facilitates the sorting of citizens by types (whether postcode, service use, region or level and type of engagement with government). They then argue that “the layering of citizenship, and the typing and sorting of citizens, can thus be seen to work with each other to produce complex matrices of citizen groupings” (133) For example the vertical column may be organised by social sorting (postcode, service use) and the rows of the ‘the matrix are formed from layering of trust profiles.” (133)

So returning to Taylor’s earlier concept of an information polity it becomes important to ask what type of ‘information citizen’ is someone. A receiver, a user, a converter/go-between (journalist etc) and how does the flow, use, connectiveness of each information citizen type vary/intensify/change over time,

So what Taylor et al describe as the drive ‘for citizen identification, whether undertaken for conventional e-government services or for security reasons” (134) produces changes in the nature and relationships of the information polity (which will vary from country to country).

Most of our FOI literature and thinking is based or rests upon a fairly static conception of information. Government collects, creates and uses ‘public information’ and FOI provides some degree of limited access to that information. Whilst the slowness and adequacy of that access is seen as a problem it remains a fairly unchanged problem. Yet Taylor et als analysis is depicting an information environment that is rapidly changing and where the concept (and actuality) of citizenship may be significantly recast.

The authors argue for a change in researchers (e-government, public administration etc) approach to these issues. The concern is that current approaches in those fields (if not others as well) is based on an “inherent technological approach by which it remains charaterized. This is thinking that, unsurprisingly, has given rise to the adoption of the prefix ‘e’ in the languages of so many societies, capturing as it does, in simple form the cpmmonplace mind set of technological determinism – begin with the electronic and all else follows. The prefix ‘I’ (for information) would lead to thinking in a different, altogether more complex direction, yet it is only by understanding new information resources, policy making and citizenship, and plan for them.” (135-136)

Some follow up thoughts arising from these articles

FOI’s capacity as a catalyst for better governance seems dependent/determined by a number of variables including;

The type of legislative architecture or policy program adopted ie
  • Whether front-end (Sweden, New Zealand) or rear end focused
  • Push or pull approach to information distribution
  • Evolutionary or revolutionary
Nature of the information environment (level and type of information asymmetry/ies)

Type of information polity

Whether implemented and/or administered as a program or simply launced as a once-off stand alone initative

Role or performance of information intermediaries/converters/brokers

Whether designed and operated as a knowledge system

The way different citizens/groups operate (ie role of civic society, the type of 4th estate etc)

I agree with Taylor that a focus on the “I” – concentrating on information flows, intensity or non-flows etc allows us to construct a different and better understanding about FOI and information management within and between different countries and eras.

An interesting research project would be to determine a profile of an information environment/information polity pre FOI (ie Tasmania prior to 1993) and post FOI.

Next on my reading list is Taylor’s “Information as X-ray: What is Public Administration for the Information Age? In I Th. M. Snellen and WBHJ van de Donk – Public Administration in an Information Age: A Handbook, IOS Press, Amsterdam 1998.


Lorraine said...

The general tone of your article is that of the "e-government" movement, which concerns itself mainly with making the public sector informationally accountable to the public. This is all well and good, but I myself am of the left-hand path, so I perceive and deprecate asymmetric power relations between any individual and any institution (defined for my purposes as any public or private sector entity that is not an "individual").

Thank you for pointing out that access to information requires orienting or meta-information. I have spent much time speculating and to a small extent researching the reverse-engineering of meta-information, to little avail. The hard fact is that it is easier to scramble information than to unscramble it. One result is that private institutions (perhaps via economy of scale in retaining data entry or scanning services) are in a position to sell (or alternatively hoard) automated or systematic access to the public record. The intent of many laws is clear on the need for a public domain in matters of public record, e.g. "speedy and public trials." Another matter of public record would be real estate transfers--the raw information can be accessed for free by anyone at the Register of Deeds' office, but the information or meta-information, in machine-readable form, is circulated exclusively within the real estate trade. In the spirit of free enterprise, people are making an enterprise out of what was meant to be free. Arguably, a substantial investment is made in indexing information, or capturing it into the digital domain, but before the Reagan Revolution, public sector wasn't a dirty word. Thus the public sells its birthright in the name of a doctrine. Unfortunately, many laws invoking the public record were made without taking meta-information into consideration. An extreme example (from fiction) of what can go wrong is the plot of the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, in which public notice of the proposed demolition of a planet is placed behind a set of administrative obstacles.

Since you don't reference the paper by URL, I assume it's in paperspace and not necessarily cypherspace, at least not gratis. I am curious as to what comprehensive user-centered indexing would look like. My own best guess is that it must be user-created. Sometimes you have to do it yourself. By contrast, it seems Kubicek advocates 'back office integration,' where the citizens get automated access, but on the back office's terms. I can only assume that the pre-filtering is out of respect for either individual "privacy" or institutional "secrecy." The former is (for purely technological reasons) an irretrievably lost cause. The latter is not something whose legitimacy I accept at face value. (Remember, I'm left-hand path.) I'm less uncomfortable with my next door neighbor (or any other individual) knowing everything about me, than with the humyn resources department.

Knowledge management systems are sometimes dysfunctional, but sometimes they're simply asymmetric by design. Figuring out which, of course, requires either insider knowledge or an adversarial (and probably extralegal) process--"guess what is in my hand." Knowledge management, as the nomenclature implies, is intended to serve the interests of management. A meaningful degree of FOI is intended for the exact opposite purpose--that of flattening hierarchies. Knowledge unmanagement is the province of hackers, and hopefully at some point communities of information volunteers.

If you want the body politic (by which I assume you/Taylor mean the public) to have an x-ray understanding, it must have powerful tools--meta information, and substantial data mining technology. My egalitarian values smart at the suggestion of ranking the citizenry and handing out access levels, apparently as a reward for obedience.

Back in the early 1990's, a much more innocent age in the history of the internets, I got more done in less time with a 2400bps modem and a few Un*x one-liners than I do now on those rare occasions I get to surf on a freaking "broadband" connection. The information explosion has definitely been outpaced by the disinformation (or noise) revolution (or counterrevolution, if you will). So much for the idea that you can begin with the electronic and all else follows. So far we have open source operating systems and programming languages. Now we need open source data capture and open source data mining tools.

Lorraine said...

Here is a first-class example of a webstacle, and this time it's in the 'public' sector:

Horatio said...
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