Nothing speaks louder about the serious nature of a subject than a 1,000-page, two-volume research book. The Handbook of Research on Public Information Technology is the latest and largest publication on the rising global use of IT in the public sector. The publication's size befits its scope: a reference for all topics relating to public-sector IT on an international scale.

Editors G. David Garson and Mehdi Khosrow-Pour set their case for such an extensive research book by asking readers to ponder three fundamental questions regarding public-sector IT:

1. Does investment in e-government lead to economic expansion?

Garson and Khosrow-Pour say the expectation that investing in IT will lead to economic development has resulted in a movement toward "smart communities," which integrate information technology throughout the entire public sector. Actually public investment in IT is quite controversial. Evidence of this can be found in the conflict between Congress, which is often skeptical of the value of e-government funding, and the Office of Management and Budget, which promotes these investments.

2. Does IT work to centralize or decentralize government?

Consolidation and centralization are greatly promoted in e-government, particularly at the state level. However, Public Information Technology explains that some IT analysts and leaders fear the effects of too much consolidation, arguing for CIOs to transfer some of their responsibilities to end-users. There's fear among some IT specialists that centralization will reinforce and increase existing bureaucratic structures.

3. Will the Internet age lead to increased social capital and social development?

Many observers and academics have hoped Internet access would lead to more participatory citizens, building social capital. According to research compiled in the handbook, however, nonpolitical social involvement does not necessarily bring about increased political participation. The book goes on to question whether online communities will play a larger political role in the future.

Underpinning these core issues is the research that makes up the bulk of the handbook, which is divided into six sections:

1. E-government and e-commerce: Their rise in importance through a series of stages, discussing various difficulties throughout the process.

2. Privacy, access, ethics and theory: The potential of the Internet for democratic transparency in government, and what this means for privacy rights.

3. Security and protection: How it has become the top budget priority in the United States since 9/11, with details about several key security threats common today.

4. System design and data processing: Topics include statistical data, service-oriented architectures and enterprise resource planning systems.

5. Project management and IT evaluation: How IT success greatly depends on the strength of project management and proper evaluation.

6. Selected readings: Ten journal articles that touch upon various public-sector IT topics.

According to Garson, the book's goal is to provide a better understanding of the nature of public information systems. The book attempts to achieve this goal with a highly organized structure and substantial amounts of empirical evidence. Unfortunately "substantial" also means a quirky blend of subjects that seem to be included to bulk out the handbook.

For example, why must there be two (!) chapters on e-government in Greece, along with 20 pages of research on electronic voting and census-taking in New Zealand? The choices seem random. The handbook is also marred by typographical and editing errors that detract from the work.

Still, the editors and contributors have created what stands as the most comprehensive reference book on public-sector IT to date, making it an essential resource for any research library covering the information technology field.

Tod Newcombe, Editor  |  Editor, Public CIO