At the time this article was
written Garth Graham was an Ottawa information consultant specializing in
community networks. Cornelius Burk was the information management principal
with Information Management and Technology Consultants Inc. in Ottawa and Henry
McCandless was the governance and accountability research associate with the
Canadian Comprehensive Auditing Foundation.
As legislators come to realize
that they need better information for their governance roles, they must have
assurance that management of information in government is a process that
informs, and is not simply an activity that pursues technology as an end in
itself. This article argues that in the new networked relationships in
organizations and the larger communities, we must make understanding and
collective learning our conscious objectives. Legislators can help by knowing
the implications of networks - which means using them.
Surrounded by the information
economy, the information age, information highways, chief information officers,
information management, and even the magazine Information Week, legislators,
managers and citizens can be forgiven if they believe better information is a
focus of contemporary management theory and practice. But behind the
"infomania" most likely lies an appetite for technology and any
plausible excuse to buy it, play with it and discard it in favour of the next
software upgrades. In today's culture, the technology tail wags the strategy
and governance dog.
The Management Myth
The idea that government's information
is managed is largely a myth. Information management is the application of
management processes (such as leading, planning and evaluating) to processes
that inform. An irony of the "information age" we have been in for
the past 20 years is the laissez-faire attitude to the management of
information. For more than a hundred years, government bureaucracies have
essentially been information producing, distributing and consuming organisms -
Peter Drucker and others have pointed out that information and knowledge are
now the coin of the realm. Nevertheless, government's attention to matters
informational is fixed on the technology, while the information, ostensibly the
rationale for all the effort, remains untended, unmanaged and a non-issue for
Albert Einstein once said: "A
fish will be the last to discover water." Bureaucrats and legislators may
likewise be the last to discover information. Lack of attention to the value of
information in governance may be a cultural or perceptual bias, but in any case
information is not yet recognized as a resource by government bureaucracies,
and it is not managed. Nor is organizational knowing and informing recognized
as an objective.
In this "information
age," even the technology is badly managed. Echoing findings of the US
General Accounting Office, Charles Wang describes in his book, Techno Vision,1
the misuse and abuse of technology in corporate America as "a screw-up of
tragic proportions." About one-third of the total investment in hardware,
software and training over the past decade has been wasted. Total cost: $1
trillion. Are governments apt to be smarter than corporations?
The real world of information
Ursula Franklin's insightful 1989
Massey Lectures, The Real World of Technology,2 aptly frame the real world of
information management. At the levels of theory and popular perception, all
appears well. But it is not. Never mind technocrats extolling the new promise
of information technology, this is the reality of information management in the
Canadian federal government:
in common conversation and trade magazines, means installing and
"doing" technology, not managing either technology or information.
Information is formally recognized
as a resource by Canadian federal government administrative policy, yet
resource management principles for information are not set out or understood,
much less applied.
The federal government does not
have a business process model to guide its managers on how to manage informing
processes and information resources (or even to help them define what
information resources are in operational, pragmatic terms).
Total government costs for
acquiring, creating, packaging, formatting, storing, managing, disseminating,
accessing and using information are not reported to Parliament. The Public
Accounts of Canada, the basic information source for Parliament's financial
oversight function, identifies as the universe of "information costs"
only costs of publishing, printing, advertising and exposition services.
Missing, for example, are the costs of: information required for financial
control and public reporting; personnel and material services; scientific,
economic and demographic information services; translation services; collection
of tax data; and public relations information among others.
Departmental managers are not
accountable for expenditures on information-related effort funded by taxpayers,
because no one knows what and where the information costs are or who is
accountable. Yet US studies3 have indicated that at least 40 percent of the
operational costs of government are for information (suggesting about $10
billion annually for the Canadian federal government).
Treasury Board Secretariat's highly
touted Blueprint for Renewing Government Services Using Information Technology4
takes a technocentric approach and is silent on 1) the views of the customers
to be served, 2) the management of services, and 3) the social dimensions of
service renewal. The value of information is blurred or overlooked, yet service
operations are expected to provide citizens with useful information about how
the service works, not just technology.
The Office of the Auditor General
of Canada has not yet undertaken rigorous value for money audits of information
management. Parliament is thus not encouraged to exact what it has a right to
receive: government's performance reporting on its information management
Fortunately, while the overall
landscape of information management in government is dismal, there are
encouraging signs. In the mid-nineties, finally, we are witnessing new and
growing appreciation and acknowledgment of information's strategic value in
both government and private sector North America. Innovative approaches, new
concepts and fresh strategies for coming to grips with the management and use
of information and its role in organizational learning are being developed.
Legislators can support these initiatives.
From the mid-19th century to about
1960, what we now call information management amounted to physical paperwork
and records management. Through the sixties and seventies, management's
attention turned to emerging and rapidly changing information technologies and
technical attributes, mostly dealt with by middle managers. Technical
efficiency was the main objective. From the mid-seventies to the early
nineties, the management of corporate information resources commanded attention
in the most progressive firms and government agencies as support for top
management, and had primarily an internal value-for-money focus.
Most government agencies today,
however, are still struggling with the technical issues and problems of the
sixties and seventies, albeit with faster, more powerful and sophisticated (and
riskier) technologies. Few have discovered their information resources. Still
fewer manage them.
Now, at last, management of
information itself is emerging as the new strategy. In their watershed 1993
book, Managing Information Strategically,5 James McGee and Laurence Prusak of
Ernst & Young have freed information from its paper, technology and other
straightjackets. The management of information, clearly distinguished from the
management of technology, is now seen as the management of processes that
inform, not management of the media, the technology, or resources as
"things." Ernst & Young's research centre in Boston stresses the
idea of "information ecology," with key concepts that include:
a broad view of information,
including computer-based and other structured but non computerized information
such as documents, audio and video;
a holistic view of the
relationships between information and other key organizational influences
including strategy, business processes, organizational structure and culture;
a strong focus on actual behaviour
of individuals in relation to information; and
an orientation to describing the
existing information environment, as opposed to modelling the future.6
In the Canadian federal government,
there are signs that departments are beginning to develop a broader, holistic
view of information management. For example, the Privy Council Office, the
Public Service Commission of Canada and Revenue Canada appear to be standing
back from the technophoria and asking fundamental questions: What is
information management? What are its guiding principles? What is the business
case for a corporate information management function? What management framework
for informing processes should guide our activities, including the development,
introduction and evaluation of information technology? With a similar purpose,
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is conducting a department-wide information
Sound information management is
critical to achievement of program fairness and efficiency. We have sufficient
understanding of governments as information-producing, distributing and
consuming organisms to allow us to install a basic set of standards for
accountability for the management of information. What accountability reporting
can legislators reasonably expect from government agencies? The reporting
should include the following types of assertions.
We know what our information needs
are at corporate, branch, unit and individual levels in the organization and we
have identified the information processes and resources required to meet these
To meet our information needs, we
have an agreed concept of information management and accountability and a set
of guiding principles for our managers.
We assign the management
responsibilities implicit in our concept of information management.
We ensure the availability of
information; we minimize its cost; we maximize its value to the organization;
and we fix accountability for informing processes and productive use of our
The pursuit of technology as such
simply produces more technology and makes us think of adapting everything else
to it. In organizations, we must shift our attention to the quality of the
processes of informing and the value of the information. Modern thinking
exemplified by Davenport et al. points out the need to understand the
behaviourial forces in organizations that determine how people and
organizations become informed, learn, and share that learning with others. We
also need accountability for the learning to be gained from using information.
The effective acquisition, use and
sharing of information in organizations converges with the wider world of
public computer networks. The Internet is already pointing to fundamental
changes in the way we will communicate with each other, which will bring
fundamental changes in management structures and processes. The coming
Information Society will have the same concerns that we have in organizations:
the quality of the informing processes and the value of the information.
Interactive connection in networks is the process that informs. Dealing with
these issues will lead to better learning and to a new order of public
accountability that will help society work better.
To be sure, transition to the
Information Society will mean "noise" in the networks and the
prospect of propaganda being sent to tens of millions of people on the Net. But
the network community's vengeance on the demagogues, the pompous and the
euphemism producers can be swift. In their own roles, legislators must guard
against profit-seekers attempting to make people pay more than they need to for
communicating with one another.
Understanding Networks as
There is a maxim: "Give a man
a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat
Restated in the context of today's
learning systems: Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach him how
to fish and he will eat until the fish stocks collapse. Teach him to understand
the system in which he, his neighbours, and fish interact, and the eating of
all three will be sustained forever.
The learning systems version
suggests that technology can be made to support social change rather than cause
it. An Information Society will favour self-determining individuals, not
compliant consumers in mass markets created by technology. It will support the
actions of people who accept fully that they structure their social
interactions through personal choice.
It is a fallacy to think that
management as a rational process will survive unaltered the transformations we
face. "Principles of management" are central to our existing
institutions. But those principles are less salient in the new "political
economy" of knowledge. Knowledge is the product of thought. Managers manage
"things," not thinking. Their training and experience tend to cause
managers to treat knowledge as a "thing." In much the same way,
managers redefine people as "human resources" so that principles of
management can be used to control social systems.
Managers do help our understanding
of systems by making them more "rational." But rationality on its own
is not sufficient to get the job done. The very structures that have been built
(and now "re-engineered") to make people in organizations manageable,
and, therefore, controllable are antithetical to the needs of organizations
that truly learn. Learning occurs through interaction with others. We need to
learn to integrate people into human systems that sustain knowing, creative
thinking, and proliferation of new ideas. In a political economy of knowledge,
where we learn, think and know, we must consider abandoning the concept of
management as we now know it.
The telephone connects people one
to one. Radio and TV, as broadcast media, connect one to many. The Internet
connects people in both these modes. It also connects any to any. We can invite
people almost everywhere to share in the articulation of a new idea. Electronic
networks also put our own thoughts into a shareable `mental space' popularly
Networks have significant
consequences for the way people relate to each other. Currently, 30 million
people converse on the Internet, and the number more than doubles each year.
Their connections are matters of personal choice. In the Information Society,
anyone can talk with (not "at") anyone. These new networked
structures are lived and understood as communities, not managed as
organizations. To truly understand the public interest in the
"connectivity" of cyberspace, it is essential to see it as an
In our existing organizations, the
individual is not expected to see the overall pattern of organization. In
networks, everyone can see everything, so actions are not regimented or
automated; they are informed actions. Networks evoke awareness and insight, not
control. Through feedback, each transaction has a potential effect on the
entire system. We need to understand how a network of individuals transforms
its emerging collective thinking into working systems that get things done.
Elected representatives must strive
to understand collective learning. For the governments they are responsible
for, our legislators must understand that "conditioning the environment of
decision" to prevent dissent cannot be maintained in an era of networking.
As Peter Drucker pointed out decades ago, without dissent we do not know what
the problems are.
Legislators can ask government
agencies the following questions:
Do you have a significant part of
your effort dedicated to getting the organization to think better, bring about
a learning environment, expand knowledge bases, and increase the rate of
adaptation to external change? And if you do, what organizational status and
influence does it have?
Do you have an organizational
function that specifically fosters relationships, connections, and associations
while clarifying how individual and sub-group rights interact and how people
are to answer for the results of individual action?
Do you have and use performance
indicators of the health of your organization as a set of nested systems and
processes that aligns what managers think is being done with what must be done?
Do you have a function that
constantly redefines organizational purpose as the organization learns, through
feedback? Who does what with this information? Do managers understand the
limits to the concept of "leadership"?
All these concerns will be
highlighted by networking. So will the quality of gaining and using
information. In both networking and organizational information management,
value lies in meaning and context, not in the particular media and technology.
Elected representatives as
Elected representatives should
understand what is happening as networking evolves, and the best way to
understand is to use the network. Electronic networks are causing a cultural
shift toward the social use of technology to achieve common goals. Citizens can
now see that dialogue is central to their involvement, and their involvement is
necessary to ensure the quality of discourse that provides space for dissent,
consensus and change in attitudes. Learning in the networks, citizens and their
elected representatives are free to move to the people with the best ideas, and
need not rely on those immediately around them or above them.
As individuals' beliefs and
attitudes coalesce into collective beliefs and attitudes, we must think about
collective responsibility as well as individual responsibility. Social systems
as complex adaptive systems are not technology systems. Beliefs and attitudes produce
intentions, actions and accountability. When we connect in cyberspace, we all
share in the growth of these systems.
Elected representatives formally
enter the picture at the stage where the collective consciousness has to be
transformed into some form of government intervention or legal action. The job
of elected representatives is to help sense, focus and bring about fair public
intention from perceived beliefs and attitudes. The intention has to be
converted into government program objectives that are subject to standards of
public accountability for fairness and efficiency. It is not the job of elected
representatives to create the collective beliefs. In producing fair intentions,
there will be increasing public expectation that legislatures will interact
with each other, in the networks, on common issues.
Within government, responsible
ministers of the Crown (councillors at the municipal level) will increasingly
require their organizations to become more open, through the networks. The
quality of ministries' and municipalities' own management of information will
thus be made plain to citizens.
Networks and power sharing
Traditionally, in the European
model, the Crown delegates to the state, the state to the province, and the
province to the community. Municipalities do not have powers to act unless
those powers have been specifically granted to them. This is a hierarchical
concept of authority based on the concept of power as a limited good.
Under this concept, power -the
ability to influence- is owned by someone, like property. The right to use
power to achieve specified ends may be delegated, but the power itself is kept.
(That is why those who know public consultation point out that if consulting
the public does not share power, it will erode trust, not build it). A clear
example of the problems our cultural concept of power creates is the issue of
Aboriginal rights. The use of power has been a stumbling block in negotiation
of these rights because the idea of power-as-property is not inherent in most
North American Aboriginal societies.
Traditional power concepts do not
work in the society of network users. They are antithetical to the
network-based social structures. The Information Society will never grant anyone
the authority to decide what someone else needs to know. The individual who
clicks the switch on the software as "groupware" does not control the
thinking and knowing of the community, but only one aspect of more complex
In electronic networks, nobody
"represents" anyone else. That has important consequences for
existing political institutions, since the networks will increasingly affect
how they function.
Power depends on the consent of the
governed. Today, few of us trust others to represent our interests fairly and
competently. In the emerging Information Society, our sense of our own
authority and autonomy will increase. All members will be engaged in dialogue;
all members will have the chance to generate ideas and to move, in cyberpace,
to where others are generating ideas. Attention will become the only scarce
As more and more people participate
in the network, society itself can be expected to become more participatory,
and therefore more democratic. In the network, the exchange process can be
mediated but it cannot be controlled and the ideas themselves cannot be managed
as if they were physical resources. The new power will reside in connecting
those who want to know with those who are generating the ideas.
Legislators must deal with the
problem of vested interests. Behind the current hype of the "information
highway" are business profit agendas but, as yet, no related social policy
formulated by government. The federal government actively supports private sector
projects that accelerate our national transformation into an Information
Society. But do present approaches to public policy debate fairly address the
question of the public interest in these projects? To put it another way, do we
know what we are doing?
For example, the partnership
between government and business, represented by Industry Canada's Information
Highway Advisory Council, is to scrutinize the "building" of
something. Even when the information highway is viewed as a construction
project, everyone agrees it has massive socio-economic implications. But where
is the socio-economic impact statement? In the discovery of who would benefit,
how, and who would pay what costs, much smaller public projects in Canada have
received far greater attention.
Asking open-ended questions about
social and economic impact usually turns up unexpected answers. The economic
advantages for telecommunications, TV, and computer industries and their
strategies can be made clear through the Information Highway Advisory Council. But
serious discussion of the social implications of those advantages is almost
Four critical public-interest
The first issue is the huge
existing investment in the physical infrastructure of current communications
systems. The gigantic structures of telephone and TV are governed by the idea
that bandwidth (the capacity to carry communications traffic) is a scarce
resource. Not true, says George Gilder7: telephone and broadcast systems are
dying. Telephone networks are designed for the slowness of voice. TV networks
are designed for the transmission of expensive centralized programming to
millions of TV screens ("dumb terminals") and for the delivery of
audiences for advertisers. As these networks give way to computer networks designed
for high-speed digital data flow, our assumptions about telecommunications must
The keys to revising our
assumptions are Gilder's first and second laws. In the "Law of the
Microcosm," the number of transistors on a chip doubles every 18 months,
yielding significant savings in computer costs and great potential gains in
peer-to-peer interconnection. Gilder asserts that the value of computers in
networks rises as the square of the rise in the number of networked machines.
The larger an open network grows, the more efficient and powerful its parts
As the computer industry replaces
the telephone and TV industries by feeding on advances in semiconductor and
networking electronics, technological advances in connections cause an
explosive growth in bandwidth. Just as computer costs are dropping, so too are
the costs to connect. But will users get the benefit?
The impact of this
computer-networking revolution is to collapse the costs of distribution and
remove the middle function. The cost of time and distance in gaining access to
people, services and products shrinks toward zero. When we think about it, much
of our current economic geography is determined by the need for high-cost
transportation and communication. Networks will change our understanding and
use of geography in ways we cannot foresee. In network communication, authority
moves from status-holders and establishments to the mediators of "creative
conversations" that are controlled by their participants. Organization
form ceases to be monolithic and becomes shaped by reciprocity, participatory
democracy, individuality, and community. This means drastic change in the
balance of power in our institutions.
Legislators must, therefore,
understand the future of telecommunications, TV and computer industries
sufficiently to know who would benefit, how and who would bear what costs from
what corporations seek to do. We can expect that the private sector investment
needed to shift from obsolete infrastructure will be supplied by market-place
investors willing to take that corporate investment risk, not by the public
purse. When the future offers a lesser cost, legislators must ensure that we
are not charged amounts equivalent to returns on investment in infrastructure
that is clearly being superseded.
The second issue is whether
corporations, with government support, aim to ignore the reality of cyberspace
as public thinking space - an electronic common - and to seek to enclose this
common as property for commercial gain and for their retention of control. If
the language of "consumer" and "supplier" is the only
vocabulary for speaking about an electronic common, it allows the common to be
turned into something commercially rented. The language obscures the issue of
the public interest and whose needs are to be honoured.
Cyberspace as public space does
require hardware, software and netware to take people in and out of it. These
costs can be identified. "Being there" (in the networks) has enormous
social ramifications, but the risk in business control of the information
highway is public access to the electronic common by a tariff that is blurred
with the true cost of hardware, software and netware. Since much of social
interaction in an Information Society requires interactive computer-mediated
communications, "life as lived" would become a toll road. Legislators
must engage the independent help they need to determine that costs charged to
citizens are fair.
The third issue is the underlying
aims of government-wide "blueprints" for technology. For example, legislators
must satisfy themselves whether massive "outsourcing" contracts for
private business to convey the data and information of government would wind up
as unchallenged "cost-plus" technology proliferation. Are we simply
"re-inventing" internal administrative processes through technology,
still within an overall "command control" environment? Or do such
"blueprints" bring about greater decision autonomy at the points of
service across all levels of government, and open up networks to allow public
access to what departments are doing? Without adequate accountings on these
matters, independently, audited, how will we know?
The fourth, and most important
issue is universal participation in the Information Society. Once we no longer
see ourselves simply as passive "consumers" on an information
highway, but as citizens actively participating in the development of the
Information Society, we will change the design specifications of systems to
allow greater participation.
The universal participation issue
is not about access to new technologies, although that access must be held
"at cost" for all. It is about using technology to counter passivity
and compliance and to achieve the thinking potential of citizens talking with
each other. Information highways must be built to serve the functional
integrity of communities, small and large. We can then begin to see clearly the
connections among government, learning systems and the challenge of fair global
economic competition. Networks enhance our human potential - our thinking and
learning potential. They allow us to think collectively, to an extent not
previously possible. Legislators must ensure that the new technology is
applied, at lowest public cost, to helping people create and exchange their
1. Charles B. Wang. Techno Vision:
The Executive's Survival Guide to Understanding and Managing Information
Technology. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc. 1994.
2. Ursula Franklin. The Real World
of Technology. Montreal: CBC Enterprises, 1990.
3. Marc Uri Porat. "The public
bureaucracies" in Forest W. Horton and Donald A. Marchand, eds,
Information Management in Public Administration, Arlington, VA: Information
Resources Press, 1982, p. 16-27.
4. Treasury Board of Canada ,
Blueprint for Renewing Government Services Using Information Technology,
(Discussion draft), 1994.
5. James McGee and Laurence Prusak,
Managing Information Strategically, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1993.
6. Thomas H. Davenport. An
Ecological Model for Information Management, (Working Paper), Boston: Ernst
& Young, April 1994; see also, Thomas H. Davenport, "Saving IT's Soul:
Human-centered Information Management," Harvard Business Review,
March-April 1994, pp. 119-131.
7. George Gilder. Life After
Television: The Coming Transformation of Media and American Life, revised
edition, New York: W.W. Norton, 1994.