Accountability Modeling and Online Policy Development in the Australian Public Service Context

Karin Geiselhart <ghart@mail.act.apana.org.au>

The Internet revolution can only be compared to the invention of the printing press. The church quickly recognized the printing press as a threat, but could neither predict nor halt the complex and profound social and economic effects. Sociology and media studies hadn't been invented yet. The spread of the printed word also led to new ways of structuring and indexing information, for example, the use of alphabetical order (1). These changes were effected largely by individuals, far fewer in number and much more isolated than we are.

Today, we are just a few years into an equally revolutionary transformation. But because we are connected, we are aware of its importance. We expect the Internet to give us new and automated means of searching for and retrieving information. We know it will change the way we work and play.

The printing press arrived at a time of almost Newtonian simplicity; and even in Newton's day, the equations only worked well for two bodies. Gravity relations between three bodies had to wait for the 20th century and chaos theory. Today, we expect complexity, and we don't expect simple answers. We do expect computers--and the clever people who understand their workings--to give us solutions. But we hesitate to predict that the Internet will save the planet. Television and the automobile didn't save the planet, nor did personal computers. Why should the Internet?

A sense of unease and urgency also separates us from the merchants and scholars of the 15th century. No longer isolated, we know all too well about global problems and our species role in creating them.

For those of us already on the superhighway, access to information is not a problem. But accessing the desired or important information is still very difficult because of the quantity and complexity of the information available. It's the same when visiting a very large city--our enjoyment is limited by the very scale and diversity that make it interesting.

It becomes a matter of missing the forest for the trees. We can spend so much time learning how to find information that we lose track of why we're looking. How do our individual priorities mesh with the general anxiety that manifests itself in so many unpleasant ways?

Every revolution has its phases, and the Internet revolution has gone through a few already. It has left the hands of the purists, people like Nicholas Negroponte who can lay claim to having used it for 20 years (2). It is now in the hands of those with enough money and time to leap in and explore. In this group are the entrepreneurs who, like their predecessors in the 15th century, know a good thing when they see it. Government agencies, which are the main focus of this paper, are coming along for the ride. At this conference, we represent yet another level of interest: What are the social implications of this revolution? Stated bluntly, will the Internet do more to ease my anxieties than cable TV?

Of course it won't--unless we make it. We would need to reach clear agreement on what needs fixing and how the Internet can help. Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, visited Australia in March and made some sensible observations. He reminded his audience that "technology will not change us or make us better, different people"; and that in its early days, television was hailed as a force for world understanding and peace, but instead we got Baywatch and soaps. However, the growing sophistication and automation of software means it can not only digest complex information faster than humans, but also find unforeseen effects (3). What works for fighter aircraft could work also in relation to broad social parameters. In fact, it should work better, since social data don't require supersonic decisions.

So the technology, while neutral in itself, can become a powerful agent for action if the right data are collected and the right questions are asked. It can digest complexity for us and give us new interpretations that individuals could not piece together.

Individuals are, in any case, almost superseded by the Internet. Much has already been said and written about the altruistic, collaborative nature of Internet interactions (4). Many heads are better than one, or "interdependence is better than independence" (5). Some research exists showing that children learn better in cooperative learning situations (6). My contribution to the Day in the Life of Cyberspace project (7) was a paragraph likening the potential for global consciousness on the Internet to a particularly human manifestation of the Gaia hypothesis.

These observations--whether based on practice, formal research, or intuition--fly in the face of the highly individualistic, competitive, winner-take-all approach that dominates current political and financial decisionmaking. This competitive framework shuts out more beneficial models of development that would nurture collaboration and participation in decisionmaking on many levels. I hope to illustrate today how narrow cost-benefit approaches also inhibit truly productive use of Internet technologies for social goals. The examples I use are from government in Australia, particularly in relation to accountability. However, the implications are relevant to business as well.

If every megabyte on the Internet becomes subject to user-pays principles, with no obligations to provide a social benefit, it will be a contemporary echo of the "enclosure" process that privatized so many English commons several centuries ago. This would endanger the new forms of community that thrive on the Internet. At present, it is still a place where private and public goals can blend. This is most successful when goals are clear and decisionmaking is viewed as a process of debate, rather than an event. Consider the approach of the Center for Living Democracy:

What's needed, therefore, is not more preaching against moral laxity but serious efforts to build on the breakthroughs in democratic practice already emerging throughout our society. Millions of Americans never before involved in public life are tackling tough public problems that have long stumped the experts--from school reform to economic development.
While communitarians admonish us to downplay self-interest for the sake of the common good, the most effective citizen-led efforts take a different tack: They encourage participants to identify their self-interests as appropriate motivation for action. And they enable citizens to act on those interests by linking their interests to those of others (8).

This is what I call the "chorus of voices" approach. It requires a commitment to a different bottom line: responsible and sustainable stewardship of this planet. That means equity and power-sharing.

It requires agreement on what the desired outcomes are and on how we will monitor them. I believe the Internet offers us now, at this early stage in its evolution, enormous opportunities in all spheres and levels of interaction to make small but significant steps toward social transformation through more open and accountable decisions.

The global public sector and the Australian situation

The moves to control the Internet, or to make it pay, necessarily create a tension between community and commercial interests. This dialectic is not always bad, but it requires a referee. This is where the public sector has an important role to play:

The proper economic role of government is larger than merely standing in for markets if they fail to work well. In defining and protecting property rights, proving effective legal, judicial and regulatory systems, improving the efficiency of the civil service, and protecting the environment, the state forms the very core of development (9).

Like most institutions, the public sector has undergone considerable reforms in the past 20 odd years. Although I draw on evidence from Australia, similar processes are taking place in most developed countries. Convergence occurs on many levels, not just technological. The public sector has expanded its spheres of action but shrunk its structures, making each level more responsible and its actions more tracable and accountable, at least in theory (10). Citizens, faced with first an expanding and now a contracting welfare state, have demanded, and sometimes gotten, limited access to the decision process.

Governments have introduced freedom of information legislation--right-to-know or "sunshine" provisions--to open up decisions to scrutiny and administrative appeals processes. Affirmative action and equal opportunity have been used to increase inclusiveness.

In Australia, we have a concept called "industrial democracy" or "the free and open sharing of information and ideas coupled with informed decisionmaking" (11). This begs the question of who ultimately makes the decisions. Ask any public servant how realistically this has been implemented. It contradicts the very definition of a bureaucracy:

Organisations with a pyramidal structure of authority, which utilise the enforcement of universal and impersonal rules to maintain that structure of authority, and which emphasize the nondiscretionary aspects of administration (12).

Modern merit-based bureaucracies provide great security for public servants, but not much responsiveness to the public (13). And inevitably, every organization put together with a burning mission will eventually burn out, as individuals grow complacent or cynical and more concerned with their own well-being than with broader social goals (14).

These trends work against accountability. Even though accountability is a current buzz word, it is a difficult concept that is generally only considered in relation to costs, or purchaser-provider situations. The social accountability of the decisionmaking process just isn't part of the picture (15). I would like to "unpack" the term "accountability" into its components. "Responsiveness" is clearly one of them.

All up, the public sector is not the first place one would look for electronic democracy initiatives. In common sense language, I would define electronic democracy as the use of interactive media for information-sharing and participation in decisionmaking. Clearly, electronic democracy implies there must be accountability for the decisionmaking process. And whereas industrial democracy operates within one organization, electronic democracy implies an empowerment both within organizations and across structures of all kinds.

But other factors make the public service fertile ground for electronic democracy. Decisionmaking has been pushed further down on flatter structures. Increasingly, public servants have computers, and access to the Web or at least e-mail is growing by leaps and bounds (16). Combined with the complexity and urgency that public sector issues often entail, control over the communications of all officers is often not feasible.

It is inevitable that pressures for cost-effectiveness will eventually put the decisionmaking process under greater scrutiny. The pace of change has accelerated, so decisions need to be made faster, while meeting public demands for participation and accountability. Policy, in particular, can no longer be made in boardrooms, sealed from the outside world. In major cases, such as the mad cow disease scandal or the blood contaminated with AIDS virus in Europe, the costs to the government of compensation can be astronomical. It's better to get it right the first time.

Australia, although an island, is not isolated from the above trends. As elsewhere, gaps between wealthy and poor have grown. Although once very egalitarian, Australia now has jobs and incomes less evenly distributed than ever before (17). This is quite evident in the capital, Canberra, which has a top-heavy concentration of public servants. Senior levels of the public service draw on a narrower social base than the rest of the public service (18), and Canberra has the highest average income in Australia. These facts, together with the planned, garden aspect of Canberra, have led to it being widely considered a privileged enclave, remote from the pressures of the "real" Australia. It's a great place to live, but not necessarily a great place to beat the drum of participatory democracy.

Australia is traditionally a tolerant country, with an underlying commitment to certain universal entitlements and equity. We are proud of our universal health insurance and aged pension provisions and resist efforts to erode them. Groups promising the extremes of Thatcherism have so far not been successful at the polls (19). As a relatively small, highly urbanized country, it is possible for groups in the public sector, private enterprise, and academia to have fairly broad and inclusive discussions, especially if assisted by technology. Australia also has a tradition of consultative mechanisms, including funding of special interest groups. Some of this consultation is now spreading onto the Internet, as my examples in the next section will show.

However, consultation is not the same thing as opening up the decisionmaking process. Too often, information is gathered broadly, but decisions are made for undisclosed reasons. "Transparency," or openness, would have to be another crucial ingredient in accountability. Clearly, Internet technologies have huge potential for expanding participation and improving government processes. My examples drawn from the Australian government will illustrate the possibilities, but also the inhibiting factors, of using the Internet to open up the policy process.

Electronic democracy: some Australian examples

The forms of electronic democracy initiated in Australia's federal public sector are usually newsgroups, subscribed lists, e-mail messages, and papers placed on the Web for comment. Some organizations, such as the Department of Finance, are using electronic bulletin boards to discuss departmental practices (20). These initiatives are used both for communicating quickly within the organization and for bringing in expertise beyond the public sector. Public servants have been quick to realize that this technology can provide timely academic and business input to policy issues (21).

The Educational Network, EdNA, and the Community Information Network in the Department of Social Security offer feedback loops via mechanisms such as e-mail, newsgroups, online surveys or visitors' books, and the placement of public documents on the Web. EdNA is also setting up subscribed lists, which will allow more specialized and detailed discussion about the development of the service. While it is emphasized that it is very early days for both of these, the general feeling is that there are clear efficiencies through the collaborative atmosphere such mechanisms create (22).

Two subscribed lists that have already been operating for a good while give an idea of the vigor that can result when bureaucrats are allowed to freely cross-fertilize with academics and other interested groups. The CIRG-L list was established for the Commonwealth Internet Reference Group to discuss administrative and technical information relating to the Internet. Most of the 283 subscribers are from Commonwealth agencies, but a significant minority are from industry or academia. The issues discussed cover, but are not limited to, use and development of the Internet in the Commonwealth. As such, it is a de facto policy engine, as the officers reading and posting to the list are often the ones who implement Internet use in their agencies.

After the March federal election, there was a hot discussion on archiving old Web pages from previous Ministers and the status of old policy documents. Who should archive? Who decides what to archive? Should it remain accessible? These questions were raised because they needed to be resolved quickly, indicating the increasingly common overlap between policy and administration (23).

One earlier discussion thread was about access to the Internet within departments. Some of the responses made it clear that subscribers wanted to be set free to get on with the business of using the Internet effectively for their organizations. They were asserting their right to electronic democracy in order to do their jobs most effectively (24). Through their actions, they are nibbling away at the definition of bureaucracy given earlier.

The LINK list, managed by Tony Barry at the Australian National University, has more subscribers and is somewhat broader in purpose than the CIRG-L list. It discusses Internet issues in general, particularly in relation to Australia, with many messages forwarded from international sources.

Both of these groups are currently open to any subscriber, and archives are maintained on the Web. Subscribed lists have several characteristics that make them possibly better vehicles for electronic democracy than either newsgroups or e-mail feedback on discussion papers. Firstly, the act of subscribing means you have to opt in, and would presumably do so only if you had a good reason for wanting to see those messages that will appear relentlessly in your e-mail box. Subscribed lists can offer a comraderie not generally achieved in newsgroups, which are more casual.

Secondly, the possibility for forwarding messages to other interested groups continues the weblike nature of the Internet itself, in a sort of fractal pattern. This is an area for further research, but I believe that these seemingly chaotic patterns of information dispersal are actually extremely efficient. One example given to me was a privacy posting to LINK that the subscriber passed on to both the Privacy Commissioner and the relevant area within his department, neither of which subscribed to LINK (25).

The archiving of lists increases their value. Archives are accessible to researchers and also to the public. Archiving helps maintain a certain level of formality and structure and can provide the transparency component of accountability in a formal consultation process. Everyone can see what comments have been made and compare them with the final decision. Better yet, the decision could emerge from the open discussion. And, although much has been said and written about flaming and gender bias in various nooks of the Net, so far my experience has been that these lists are polite and friendly, as well as extremely useful professionally. No other single resource has been as valuable or cost effective to me.

As they proliferate, government-sponsored newsgroups and lists need consistent management and guidelines for operation. Australia doesn't have anything yet that is as comprehensive as the US GOVNEWS Hierarchy Management plan (26). However, this lengthy document may not be everyone's idea of how to encourage spontaneity and freedom of speech in newsgroups. A balance has to be struck between control and independence, based on a clear statement of purpose.

Earlier, I referred to the creative anarchy and a collaborative culture that is now accepted Internet dogma. These qualities are, however, neither accidental nor invulnerable. I believe their value can be measured and used to document one of the Net's most important products: social capital. This is the underlying network of trust, communication, and common values that is a prerequisite for all forms of sustainability.

Some of the Internet's well-known qualities are particularly relevant to reforming bureaucracies. The status quo of pyramidal information flows and organizational and geographic boundaries can be transcended. Officers who can reach out and reply instantly can be more responsive to client needs and more cost effective if freed from layers of filtering.

Because the Internet is still low cost and fairly informal, the offering of ideas and resources to others is a low-risk activity. Several studies have been done on the kinds of altruistic behavior common across the Net (27). This altruism, or the giving of assistance without immediate expectation of benefit, is itself an agent for change. Status and, to a lesser extent, gender are invisible.

On the other hand, open communications and broad participation in decisions can be threatening to those whose main concern is with controlling the process, rather than with end goals. Remember the definition of bureaucracy includes "impersonal rules to maintain that structure of authority." Thus, not all senior managers favor universal access to global e-mail for their organization. And without explicit accountability for improving the process, many have no commitment to change.

This reactive mind-set is illustrated by the sorts of comments many advocates of the Internet are familiar with: "I don't think we should go outside the existing paradigms" or "You mean we wouldn't be able to control who we communicate with?" or "It's not that important that women know what we're doing, because we're changing the structures for them" (28). A good amount of this conservatism is the product of ignorance, as senior managers can lag behind staff in familiarity with both use of the technologies and understanding of their potential. At least one department head is said to keep his computer facing the wall, gathering dust.

This leads to a third component of accountability: "evaluation." Without procedures for evaluation (which, of course, must be responsive and transparent), there can be no substantial accountabilty. Evaluation is recognized as being both complex and necessary to lessons for the future (29), however, it is often neglected or ignored.

Other concerns relating to electronic democracy are valid, and need to be addressed. Security of data is a major one and has led, for example, to threats in one department to close down the X 400 e-mail gateway (30). Breaching of policy guidelines in e-mail messages is another concern. Thus, a response posted to a list has a quasi-official status because it is widely dispersed, committed to writing, and probably archived. Comments tossed out over the phone or even at a meeting, on the other hand, are often less guarded, because they are not generally recorded. Also, public servants are well trained in the protocols for acceptable pronouncements in these situations. For example, e-mail messages sent to Ministers are sometimes passed back to the department with the status of "Ministerials," requiring a long, tedious (and expensive) process before they can be replied to and discharged. How much simpler it would be to just dash off a suitable reply via e-mail from an officer trusted to have sufficient knowledge and sensitivity to respond appropriately. This is unlikely to happen, but it illustrates how general administrative reform overlaps with electronic democracy.

Many agencies are starting to develop formal protocols on what clearance procedures are required with e-mail and lists. The Northern Territory Department of Mines, for example, has a 13-page set of guidelines, covering all aspects of personal computer use, Internet, and e-mail access (31). Some departments require a disclaimer to accompany every message: "Unless otherwise noted, these are the personal views of the author and do not reflect official policy."

With or without a disclaimer, many officers feel uneasy about contributing their "two kilobytes per second worth" to an e-mail discussion group, because it goes on the record. Comments critical of one's own organization are always dangerous. One list subscriber told me he sometimes wishes he could "weigh in under an alias."

In any case, the rich data that come from these forms of electronic consultation and debate are generally undervalued. They are often viewed as ephemeral or a supplement to other forms of input. They are not taken seriously as a mechanism for improving policy and the policy-cycle process. However, officers working closely with these interactive technologies are becoming bolder about wanting them to be used to actually improve government processes (32).

The danger is that either excessive controls or excessive preoccupation with costs could destroy the rich productivity of electronic collaboration. Without new models to draw on, existing bureaucratic patterns may well strangle the goose by failing to recognize its golden eggs.

A new model of accountability

In this last section of my paper, I propose a concept of accountability that requires explicit statement of social goals. A workable model of accountability should include the parameters that we know to be most urgent. We do know broadly what is most urgent, and our ways of knowing include the dimension of global self-awareness that distinguishes our era from all those before it. A truly rational approach recognizes that "if it's not measured, it doesn't get done."

The complexity and difficulty of measurement should not be daunting. If you consider how far the computer simulations of climate change have come in the past decade, you must agree that even the most intricate systems can be modeled. Social modeling may even be a bit easier, because we can decide on the variables. With climate, we have had to discover them.

Accountability has always been an issue for the public sector (33). It is certainly an issue for bureaucratic reform in Australia. However, often it is mentioned without elaboration, or it is only considered in narrow, cost-effectiveness terms. A modeling project within the Department of Finance is looking at making accountability more transparent, but only in relation to purchaser-provider situations (34). Accountability of decisionmaking, consultation, or policy processes is not yet being considered, to my knowledge, in any rigorous way.

Traditional--that is, pre-Internet--means of imposing accountability give us ground to build on. They include publicity, internal controls, funding of lobby groups, whistle-blower legislation, and judicial measures (35). They all have some effect, but no one method can ensure that a public administration will consistently act with the best outcomes of its social base in mind. Recent scandals in Australia with the Aboriginal Legal Service are a sad reminder of just how far from accountable a publicly funded agency can be. It would seem that such extremes implicate several layers of agencies, none of which is concerned enough about its own accountability to take action.

I've suggested that accountability should include the elements of transparency, responsiveness, and evaluation, as well as cost-effectiveness. The first three elements are measures of meeting social goals; the last is a financial safeguard. Thus, social goals met + cost-effectivness = accountability, where social goals are measured in terms of responsiveness, transparency, and evaluation.

Of course, the specific social goals will differ for each area being looked at. Often, agencies or departments have excellent vision statements and corporate plans that should be adequate as a statement of social goals. However, as with many broad statements of noble intent, the reality doesn't always measure up.

And sometimes, vision statements are framed too narrowly to allow for a comprehensive approach to accountability. For example, the draft blueprint for government information technology in Australia states an intention to make the government a world leader in government administration and provision of information and services (36). There is no explicit intention to improve the democratic base or mechanisms on which the government rests.

You can have world-class administration while losing the plot on social goals, just as Australia had the world's greatest treasurer (37) during a period when wealth distribution became more skewed than ever before, and the national debt soared.

In relation to information technology (IT), a strategy to use IT to improve agency planning is not adequate if it does not recognize that the business of some departments is policy development, and they should be overtly obliged to find measures that allow them to state unequivocally that they are using IT in the most effective way for the social outcomes they have been set up to deliver.

If we accept a concept of policy or decisionmaking broadly--which is more mutable, more involved with constant evaluation and feedback, more responsive and transparent to social goals--then Internet technologies have much to offer for improved accountability.

They can make proposals, comments, decisions, strategies, results, and modifications available to a much wider range of observers and participants. They can allow a "chorus of voices" to arise, aware of their strength. Some Websters are already outlining a comprehensive governmental information/retrieval system that would allow full text searches of archives (38). Such a system could easily include full retrieval of comments made in a consultative process and provision of data on implementation and evaluation. Participants could help decide on appropriate social goals, if not already built into the particular project.

A cascade of accountability could be set up, with big social goals for big issues, flowing on to smaller measures for component strategies. Beginnings of global aproaches are evident in relation to greenhouse emissions and agreements to phase out chlorofluorocarbons. It's not perfect, there are many problems, but the world is watching--and pressures to comply are likely to increase.

Research on the modeling of social accountability is in its very early stages. Much work needs to be done on tracking suitable projects that have some form of electronic democracy as an explicit goal. I am hoping to work with agencies pursuing this approach, where both costs and goals are part of the measures of effectiveness.

References

  1. Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
  2. Nicholas Negroponte on Lateline (ABC TV: 19 March 1996).
  3. Douglas Adams, reported in The Australian (Tuesday, 12 March 1996): p. 25.
  4. American Psychologist 39 (1984): 10, 1123-34, quoted by Denis Strangman, "Internet: Superhighway or Goat Track," seminar organized by the Institute of Public Administration (26 February 1996): p. 7.
  5. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989).
  6. Christina Slade, "Raisonnement et Cooperation," in La Cooperation dans la Classe: Étude du Concept et de la Pratique Éducative. Collectif sous la direction de Marie-France Daniel et Michael Schleifer (Montreal: Éditions Logiques, 1996), pp. 125-150.
  7. "A Day in the Life of Cyberspace," http://www.1010.org
  8. Frances Moore Lappé, Codirector, Center for Living Democracy, http://www.npr.org/~democracy/lappe.html
  9. World Bank, World Development Report (New York: World Bank, 1991).
  10. Guy Peters, The Politics of Bureaucracy, Third Edition 1989 (New York and London: Longman), p. 4.
  11. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Industrial Democracy Plan, 1993-97.
  12. Peters, op. cit., p. 3.
  13. Peters, op. cit. (responsiveness lost through merit based).
  14. Peters, op. cit., p. 135.
  15. Various personal communications, including consultants to the Department of Finance.
  16. Strangman, op. cit., p. 3.
  17. R.G. Gregory and B. Hunter, "The Macro Economy and the Growth of Ghettos and Urban Poverty in Australia," Discussion Paper No. 325 (Centre for Economic Policy Research, Australian National University, April 1995).
  18. Patrick Weller, John Forster, and Glyn David, eds., Reforming the Public Service: Lessons from Recent Experience (Nathan, QLD: Centre for Australian Public Sector Management, Griffith University, MacMillan Education Australia, 1993), pp. 214-5.
  19. Ibid., p. 211.
  20. Robyn Martin, Department of Finance, personal communication.
  21. Strangman, op. cit., p.
  22. Graham Adcock, Technical Director, EdNA Task Force, personal communication.
  23. Peters, op. cit., p. 4.
  24. CIRG-L archives: http://email.nla.gov.au/archives/cirg-l/
  25. Graham Adcock, Technical Director, EdNA Task Force, personal communication.
  26. US GOVNEWS Hierarchy Management plan: http://ftp.sterling.com/govnews/govnews.draft
  27. American Psychologist 39 (1984): 10, 1123-34, quoted in Strangman, op. cit., p. 7.
  28. Personal communications.
  29. Weller, op. cit., p. 222.
  30. Personal communications.
  31. E-mail from Murray Maynard, 11 March 1996, Northern Territory Department of Mines & Energy. Complete guidelines available at: http://www.dme.nt.gov.au/admin/internet_use.html
  32. Message to LINK, Friday, 29 March 1996.
  33. Peters, op. cit., p. 250.
  34. Alan Hepner, consultant to Department of Finance, personal communication.
  35. Peters, op. cit., ch. 8.
  36. "Framework and Strategies for Information in the Commonwealth of Australia" (Office of Government Information Technology, December 1995).
  37. Euromoney Magazine awarded Paul Keating, then Treasurer, the award of Finance Minister of the Year in 1984.
  38. Posting to CIRG-L by Steven Clift, 23 March 1996.