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Exploring the stovepipe culture
Harvard's new National Center for Digital Government probes the evolution of e-government in America
DGRC Communications Manager

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Digital government research is entering a time of definitive ideological expansion.

While some researchers explore more traditional nuts-and-bolts methods for improving and streamlining the way information technology serves Americans, a growing subfield of DG scientists is focusing studies on the very nature and evolution of electronically-enhanced governance.

Researchers at the Harvard-based National Center for Digital Government are probing for answers to some of the deepest questions dogging government IT workers:

How should agencies cooperate in the digital age? How is IT changing policy - and the act of policymaking itself? What are the risks and benefits of internet-based governance?

Launched in June, 2002 with a $1.5-million NSF Digital Government grant, the center's components include competitively awarded pre-doctoral fellowships to heolp build the nation's next generation of DG scholars, other support for graduate students, seminars, workshops, and other forms of outreach and community building.

Its policy scientists have already begun street-level research at the center (full name: The National Center for Digital Government: Integrating Information and Institutions) with projects such as these:

  • A study of the effects on federal agency behavior and practices of 24 Bush administration e-government initiatives for interagency collaboration and efficiency
  • Construction and studies of an online community of prosecutors and public defenders who work with DNA evidence
  • A workshop and followup research on e-rulemaking that examines how IT and e-government innovation are affecting government policy and policy-making
  • A workshop on analyzing the risks, benefits and implications of online identity and authentication methods commonly used by e-government programs

"It's a great historical period for us to be able to carry out this research," says Jane E. Fountain, the center's principal investigator and director, and an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Like the period circa 1870 to 1920 that saw the growth of the bureaucratic state, today's IT boom is driving American governments through an extraordinary paradigm shift.

Jane Fountain

For example: Fountain is studying 24 initiatives that the Bush administration has launched to combine and streamline organizational structures, practices and technologies among government agencies. This ambitious push for integration must take into account myriad existing e-government programs, many of them set in motion amid the go-go atmosphere of Clinton-era Internet innovation.

But it must simultaneously fight to overcome an entrenched bureaucratic culture and oversight structure that reinforces the tendency for most federal agencies to operate in stovepipe fashion, as vertically aligned entities that seldom collaborate.

In this arena of tremendous potential and challenge, the National Center for Digital Government is working to establish a global research community to study - and ultimately help - the electronic evolution of America's governments as well as governments abroad, according to Fountain.

"The general objective of the center is to create an intellectual space for people interested in studying the potential transformational effects of technology and government," says David Lazer, the center's associate director and an assistant professor of public policy at the Kennedy School.

"Just because technology has a transformational opportunity doesn't mean it will occur," he says. "One has to study the nexus between the two to determine what's desirable. If one looks at the Web pages of members of Congress, they rarely offer any information ... or explanations ... regarding the votes of the member. The reason why is that offices are afraid of people doing opposition research for a future opponent, and that would just make it easier (for the other side)."

Fountain's research will follow the two-dozen Bush initiatives as they progress:

"We're not only examining these projects and how they are unfolding, but also need to analyze developments in the institutional context - that is, oversight, budgetary and legislative structures, and how they are changing as well," she says. "All of that together adds up to what political scientists call political development - change in the structure of the nation-state and in the policymaking processes used by career public managers."

Meanwhile, center researcher Cary Coglianese is preparing a report on a DG-funded workshop on e-rulemaking that took place in January, 2003. The workshop was convened to develop a research agenda for studying the way IT affects - and effects - government policy.

"The whole rulemaking process itself is rich in rules that government agencies must follow about who they speak to, when they get public comment and who they can ask information from," says Coglianese, an associate professor of public policy at the Kennedy School. "All of that is a highly entrenched bureaucratic process, and it's also one in which you've had people working on it for decades, and you really have to think about a cultural change - about reorganizing the business of regulating."

For example: Hundreds of federal agencies enact nearly 4,000 rules every year. Yet only 16 of the organizations even allow people to comment by e-mail - and only four of those have fully digitized their docketing systems on the Web for use by citizens, says Coglianese. "For years, these dockets - which contained not only public comments but supporting studies - traditionally were file cabinets," he says.

Coglianese says that the report on the e-rulemaking workshop, due out in Spring, 2003, might include recommendations such as these:

  • Trying out a fully digital system for creating, airing, commenting upon and finalizing new government regulations, rules and policies
  • Researching simulation technology to study the potential effects of new policies before they are enacted - What, for example, are the health ramifications of changing pollution standards?
  • Experimenting with online "juries" of citizens running desktop software that lets them study new regulations and file comments on them directly to an agency database
  • Studying more automated methods of analyzing the thousands of public comments received by agencies to seek out patterns of opinion and reaction

Another National Center for Digital Government workshop is gearing up to study how government agencies use identity and identifiers in presenting and protecting publicly acquired data: The Virtual Citizen: Identity, Autonomy, and Accountability: A Civic Scenario Exploration of the Role of Identity in On-Line Governance.

Scheduled for May 28-29 at the Kennedy School, the workshop will dig explore ways that agencies handle identity, privacy and accountability in online authentication, says primary investigator L. Jean Camp.

The workshop's goal will be to provide a roadmap for government information masters and CIOs to follow when assessing benefits of and threats to the personal data they put on the web, and the authentication they use to protect it.

"There are many instances where privacy and security reinforce each other - integrating identity undermines privacy and in security terms can create a single point of failure," says Camp, an associate professor of public policy at the Kennedy School. E-commerce has felt the sting of such failures, as have millions of Americans hurt by identity theft, she points out.

"The most famous identity thieves in the world were men with box-cutters who flew under the identities of respectable Saudi businessmen," she says, recalling the Sept. 11 attacks. "The dialogue of security versus privacy has, I think, prevented (finding answers to) the truly subtle questions that need significant research."

Another National Center fellow is exploring a different arena, where distrust may be blocking dialogue that could lead to better governance: The use of DNA evidence in the criminal justice system.

David Lazer is building an online community of prosecutors and public defenders at, giving them forums for discussing DNA evidence practices, and studying the way they share - or refuse to share - information.

"One of the things I'm wrestling with is, to what extent do you want people from different parts of the system to interact," says Lazer, who hopes to expand his Massachusetts-only pilot community into a nationwide forum for lawyers on DNA policies and practices.

"On the one hand, in any sort of informational and deliberative ideal, you want people with different perspectives on the system to meet and exchange views," he says. "On the other hand, in an adversarial system such as the criminal justice system, much of what will be useful to exchange will be strategies to use against the other side."

The trick, he says, will be to set up certain forums for common discussion between both prosecutors and defenders, and other "private" forums so the two sides can collaborate amongst themselves. He is also working to overcome resistance at a technical level - some people are reluctant to use forums, other to download Quicktime plugins that make it possible to view the lectures that serve as talking points for some forum topics.

"On the one hand, you do want these individuals to meet, on the other hand, you can't make the impossible happen," Lazer says. "If we can hold workshops at the Kennedy School around certain themes and videotape them and use them to foster discussion, I think that would be effective."

With plans to augment the forums with questionnaires to the lawyers before and after a year's participation, Lazer says, he hopes to study how the forum changes the participants' behaviors, perceptions and communication practices, and determine what factors might be used to predict their participation.

In June, 2002, NCDG held a national, NSF-sponsored workshop called "Information, Institutions and Governance: Advancing a Basic Social Science Research Agenda for Digital Government," led by Fountain at the Kennedy School. The workshop's final report can be found here.

Lazer and Fountain say they hope that their research questions may prompt reflection in their subjects - and perhaps help further the evolution of the nascent e-government culture in the U.S..

Fountain says that she expects she and her colleagues will begin by publishing a stream of articles on their findings. Quantitative data from surveys will allow them to do regression analysis on a set of hypotheses about government organizational behavior and policymaking.

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"In addition, the archival work alone is quite valuable," says Fountain of her study of the Bush administration's initiatives for interagency collaboration.

"You can't get much information on these initiatives on the Web. We need to go dig it out of official and unofficial documents, white papers and reports to OMB and the Hill ... It's all government data, but while some of them are easily accessed, others are not easily available. Just putting together an accurate, detailed description of the ways in which public servants are using information and communication technologies will be quite valuable."

The far-reaching potential of new e-government initiatives make this an especially important and fascinating time to be engaged in digital government policy research, says Fountain:

"What we're seeing right now are not changes in the location of organizational boxes. The structural changes are deeper, in the business processes of the agencies," she says. "It's a pretty dramatic restructuring."