Impossible (?) Expectations of Overlap between Different Types of Mediated Interactions: Why Technology Has Not Yet Reinvented the Government “Wheel”

Ubiquitous participation in an inescapably digital society has led to well established norms of mediated interactions and socially mutual expectations for mediated environments, in terms of factors such as immediacy of feedback and constancy of accessibility. Panic ensues when Gmail services experience (brief) outages, for example, and Is it down right now? is commonly referenced when problems are experienced. Commercial services provide increasingly high levels of service and support, thus when online services and processes do not meet this comparative standard, they are disparaged. Public services frequently fail to meet the comparative standard. Discussion of healthcare.gov and other e-government initiatives often emphasizes disappointment and criticism upon evaluation of systems and implementation strategies.

Now assume the following to be true: ICTs and their contexts are mutually shaping, external factors affect interactions with information systems, and ICTs have social, technical, and institutional natures. Each of these precepts are individually supported within the corpus of social informatics literature and, given implied consistency of the paradigm, these general rules can be taken in concert. If technologies have social, technical, and institutional facets, each facet impacts and can be impacted by the context in which the technology is used and constructed, as well as by and with social actors using technologies.

Couple this with knowledge of policy implementation, bureaucracy, and complexity of government, and there is an indication that popular narratives of e-government and expectations for digitally mediated delivery of services simply are not grounded in the reality of citizen government interaction, but rather in something else entirely. Complexity is intuitively descriptive government bureaucracy. It has long been understood that the size of bureaucracy is directly related to complexity and differentiation of the social system, as context, in which it is situated (Noell, 1974). Furthermore, bureaucracy in the United States represents an increasingly complex environment as decision-making is both centralized in decision making and highly decentralized in implementation in many domains of government (Chen, 2013; Rice, 2013), yet centralized, direct management of e-government is extremely valuable to both the implementation and operation of complex e-services (Chen, 2013).

In this sense, the question ought not to be why can’t the government provide the same level of e-service as thousands of business are able to achieve, but rather: how has the complexity of bureaucracy in America impacted and been impacted by technology, and can technology be designed in such a way as to anticipate bureaucratic complexity so as to provide e-services in a way compatible with government? Given the healthcare deadline earlier this week, the complex interplay between policy and technology in the case of the Affordable Care Act presents an opportunity to examine how and why collective expectations are not met. A combination of knowledge about complex government sub-contracting regulation and cutting-edge technological expertise is relatively rare, yet the struggles of the online components of health insurance overhaul did not doom the project, as the goal of 7 million enrollees was met, but rather illustrated disconnects between bureaucracy and technological capacity.

Looking globally, e-government is often touted as a mechanism to increase access to government in attempts to spur development (Ahmad Mousa, 2012), yet the complexity of these contexts, and in particular the levels of social differentiation in non-democracies and ethnically diverse states implies that technology cannot radically transform government without parallel structural adjustments. Rather generally, e-government and digitally mediated citizen-government interaction must be thoughtfully integrated with the bureaucratic, and political, context to change government, with the expectation that it will be reciprocally impacted by government.

 

References

Ahmad Mousa, O. (2012). E-Government in developing countries: Framework of challenges and opportunities. Journal Of Theoretical & Applied Information Technology, 46(2), 1013.

Chen, Y. (2013). Improving transparency in the financial sector: E-Government XBRL Implementation in the United States. Public Performance & Management Review, 37(2), 241-262.

Noeli, J. J. (1974). On the Administrative Sector of Social Systems: An Analysis of the Size and Complexity of Government Bureaucracies in the American States. Social Forces, 52(4), 549-558.

Rice, D. (2013). Street-Level Bureaucrats and the Welfare State: Toward a Micro-Institutionalist Theory of Policy Implementation. Administration & Society, 45(9), 1038-1062. doi:10.1177/0095399712451895

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About madelynsanfilippo

My name is Madelyn Sanfilippo and I am a doctoral student in Information Science at the School of Informatics and Computing, Indiana University, Bloomington.

Posted on April 3, 2014, in ICT, Social Informatics. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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