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signal:noise Governing Informatics

When digital government becomes digital governance.

by / November 22, 2002
Informatics. The term sounds vaguely European, and just a little exotic. At its root - and it has long roots - it means human-machine communication, or the science of turning disparate data into useful information.

The term is commonly used in the hard sciences and medicine - for example, bio-informatics is where DNA and information technology meet, and health care informatics is the discipline that has grown from the intersection of patient care and IT.

But what of the social or so-called soft sciences? Can political science and the study of public administration generate a comprehensive informatics of governing? It can and it must. To do public business and earn public trust requires a new understanding of the interface between citizens and government.

A recent CIA report suggests that in the coming decades, governing only gets harder. "Governments will have less and less control over flows of information, technology, diseases, migrants, arms and financial transactions - whether licit or illicit - across their borders. The very concept of 'belonging' to a particular state will probably erode."

In that context, a model of Governing Informatics would be future oriented and challenge driven. Contrast that with the current state of much of public-sector IT, which still tends to be constrained by its past and remains complaint driven.

The two most common complaints in and about the public-sector IT community are mirror images of each other. The first is the charge that money and technology are being thrown at fundamentally broken processes - an approach commonly derided as paving the cow path. The second is different in approach but not in kind - the complaint about the imposition on public organizations of foreign processes that have been automated around the structure and operational needs of private-sector corporations. Technology solutions known by their three-letter acronyms often become lightning rods in this complex and often risky form of technology transfer.

A theory and practice of Governing Informatics begins with a renewed understanding of the constitutionally defined social contract between the governed and those who govern. It is the place where digital government becomes digital governance and provides a comprehensive view of governing through technology well-suited to the spirit of the age.

In accepting this year's Rudolph W. Giuliani Leadership Award, New York Finance Commissioner Arthur Roth used language that has regrettably fallen out of common usage in this country. He accepted the award on behalf of those who "ministered to the physical and financial needs" of the people of New York before and after the skyline changed. Roth said he believes the post-9-11 environment reminds us that, at its core, "government needs to serve."

Three other "posts" underscore that same need - post-boom, post-nomadic and postmodern - of which the long-term impacts on governing, while profound, have gone with comparatively little comment.

Post-boom is the generation that has grown up in households where PCs were just another appliance. For them, the Internet is their first choice for commerce, conducting research and connecting with a sense of community. Significantly, the first wave of this demographic cohort became eligible to vote at the turn of the millenium.

Joel Kotkin and Susanne Trimbath, writing in the Los Angeles Times, identify the current era as post-nomadic - noting a return home for those distracted from priorities of "family, faith and community," who are much less likely to cede decision-making about these rediscovered priorities to unseen civil servants or elected officials operating outside public view. Moreover, post-nomadics see network connectivity as a utility, turning to it in emergencies to check the safety of loved ones. They expect the Internet (and the online government services that ride on it) to have the availability and reliability of electricity and tap water.

The third constituency is the loosely aligned postmoderns, the most vocal of whom have taken to the streets of Seattle, Quebec City and Washington, D.C., among other places, to protest globalization and the excesses of capitalism. Many have rejected the institutions of modernity - they are, at best, suspicious of government. However, they view the Internet as the last best chance for democratic renewal.

Post-boomers, post-nomadics and postmoderns will undoubtedly bump into each other in the electronic public square while contending for what may ultimately be irreconcilable world views. The hopeful, compelling sign is that they all are nesting in a networked world. In the main, they share a sophisticated view of the Internet - using it for communicating, commerce, creating community and arousing interest. Government fails to at least match that level of sophistication at its peril.

The CIA's stark prediction about governments' loss of control in a society of free agents changes the rules for governing. We need a model of Governing Informatics to transcend the technology, people, processes and functions of government to focus on the highest-stake civil prize of them all: the idea of a participatory, representative democracy.

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., , is the chief strategy officer of the Center for Digital Government, former deputy state CIO of Washington and a veteran of startups.

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Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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