Cybergovernment

By Edwin F. Brown, Jr.

As I realize more each day the potential for revolutionary change that computers, the internet, and related information technologies hold for human institutions, I cannot help but speculate on the range of applications these new technologies have to improve those institutions. I can think of no better point at which to start that speculation than the potential positive impact information technologies can have on the institutions of government. I neither dismiss nor underestimate the negative potential. However, in the face of most waves of change, the negative potential surfaces much earlier and easier than the potential positive applications. Thus, it is on the positive potential and opportunities for change with which we must work to bring them to the fore, given the almost instinctive antipathy that humans have toward change.

Among the many sites on the world wide web pertaining to this topic, I discovered IBM’s Institute for Electronic Government (http://www.clearlake.ibm.com/Institute/). The Institute’s brochure greets the reader with the following accurate--though for many hardly comforting--description of the impact of technology on government:

As the Information Age and global electronic commerce replace the industrial economic models that dominated much of the twentieth century, governments are facing unprecedented challenges and opportunities....As a result, government leaders are confronted with not only reinventing basic government operations and rethinking public policies (e.g., education, healthcare, delivery of citizens services), but also defining new roles and policies in the emerging frontier of electronic commerce (e.g., taxation, privacy, security, trade, economic development).

One lesson here is that we are dealing with lots of unknowns and likely bewildering levels of complexity--hardly characteristics which endear people to the inexorable discomfort that change brings. That makes us want to turn away from it in a vain hope that it will go away, when we should be asking ourselves how we can use this innovation to improve what we now do.

Even our language changes and words that a few months earlier were unheard of now insinuate themselves into thousands of daily conversations. For example, I see the term "cyberocracy" with increasing frequency when I read about future governmental and political trends. It is a hybrid term which, according to David Ronfeldt, a researcher at the RAND think-tank, comes

from the roots "cyber-" and "-cracy," [which] signifies rule by way of information. As it develops, information and its control will become a dominant source of power, as a natural next step in man's political evolution. In the past, under aristocracy, the high-born ruled; under theocracy, the high priests ruled. In modern times, democracy and bureaucracy have enabled new kinds of people to participate in government. In turn, cyberocracy, by arising from the current revolution in information and communications technologies, may slowly but radically affect who rules, how, and why.

Political conservatives typically view change on the scale threatened by the expansion of information technology with attitudes ranging from healthy skepticism to full-blown liberal-conspiracy theories. They should, however, take their cue from Newt Gingrich who, while no exemplar of ethical conduct for public officials, may offer a sterling example of the appropriate intellectual disposition for public officials as they grapple with challenges to public policy making that information technology brings. In a forward he wrote for a book by futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler entitled Creating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave, he offered the following observation:

   The Tofflers correctly understand that development and distribution of information has now become the central productivity and power activity of the human race. From world financial markets to the worldwide, twenty-four-hour-a-day distribution of news via CNN to the breakthroughs of the biological revolution and their impact on health and agricultural production--on virtually every front we see the information revolution changing the fabric, pace and substance of our lives.

David Ronfeldt’s essay, "Cyberocracy is Coming" (http://www.cyberocracy.org/Cyberocracy.html), introduces his thoughtful analysis of the impact of information technology on government as follows:

This is...about how the information and communications technology revolution may affect politics and government in the future....One idea--that something called "cyberocracy" is coming--motivates this essay. It begins by reviewing the effects that the information revolution is having on business and government....The essay then focuses on how the modern bureaucratic state may give way to the "cyberocratic state" early in the next century. The conclusion recommends the creation of a new field of study around the concept of information, and suggests some items for a future research agenda.

We can rail against these innovations all we want and lament the loss of the good old days until proverbial cows come home, but in the end, we are going to have to deal with this change-era as we have had to deal with all others previously--accept that it is going to happen and make the best of it. Information technology and its deep ramifications are facts of life, not passing fads. I expect that over time both the institution and processes of government--perhaps even the defining political philosophies--will be substantially altered by the impact of information technologies. But, like Paul Newman’s title character in the movie Cool Hand Luke, we first have to get our minds right.

I am not one who believes that the changes brought about by information technology are panaceas--there are no such solutions that I am aware of--nor do I believe that these changes hold only positive consequences. Even Ronfeldt cautions us that "optimism about the information revolution should be tempered by a constant, anticipatory awareness of its potential dark side." My point is that expending time and energy attempting to forestall the inevitable is valuable time and energy lost to the effort to extract from the applications of information technologies to government their most positive implications.

I agree with Ronfeldt’s analysis that

to the extent that something like the phenomenon under discussion develops, it may affect the organization of governments and societies, the meaning of authority and democracy, the nature of bureaucracies, the behavior of elites, even the definition of progress. It may transform how people think about the ‘system’ and the world in which they live. And it may give rise to new patterns of conflict and cooperation at all levels of society

The catalyst that prompted me to do some serious thinking about and research into the application of communications and information technology to government was probably a book I read a couple of years ago. Kevin Phillips’ book, Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street, and The Frustration of American Politics, has as its thesis the fact that "Washington [has become] a citadel of special interests and shopworn officeholders...," a city of privileged "...political, business, and financial elites that bail each other out...." As I returned to the book for reference in writing this article, I saw my initial reaction to his observations penned in the margin of a page, as follows: "AMEN!!!."

At the end of a very interesting and convincing argument supporting that thesis, Phillips offered ten proposals for reform, most of which I agree with, one of which stood out in my mind as essential. That was proposal number one--decentralizing or dispersing power away from Washington. In that proposal Phillips suggested a reasonable and sound, albeit revolutionary, application of information and communications technology to solve one of our most pressing current political/governmental problems. The potential effect of this innovation on the entrenched Washington lobbying establishment is best expressed in Phillips’ own words.

Several legislators have introduced bills to allow members of Congress to cast votes from their home districts in case of illness, emergency, or a local disaster. Technology is obviously no problem; remote voting on everything from motions to final passage could take place by secure electronic device. What has congressional leaders doubtful and hostile is a longer-term implication. If members could vote from their districts, the public would want them to do so--to stay in their districts listening to ordinary citizens instead of harkening to party leaders and hobnobbing with Washington interest groups. In short, the electronic revolution that has aided pressure groups to blitz Washington shrivels in the hot democratic sun of the ultimate dispersal of power. This...may be a better way to break up concentrated interest-group power than regulatory attempts that run afoul of constitutional protections. [Also, if this were to happen] Congress’s huge Washington-based staff of fifteen thousand, many of them K Street influence-peddlers-in-training, could be cut back sharply.

Certainly this is revolutionary, but if you put Phillips’ contemporary suggestions into the context of the frustrations that led to the American Revolution, the two share some common features, the most striking of which are the parallel feelings expressed by both 18th century colonists and 20th century citizens that the national government then was and now is terribly unrepresentative of, and unresponsive to, the needs and wishes of those being governed. It may truly be a revolution, a peaceful and bloodless one, that we need, and information and communications technology has the potential to do just that.

There is absolutely no technological reason why this suggestion would not work. Voting, conferencing, committee meetings, floor debates, all could be held through a sort of "cybercongress". The constant access to information which Representatives and Senators need could easily be provided by the existing technology, however remote the Representatives and Senators may be. If Phillips’ proposal were to be adopted, nothing meaningful and substantial to the promulgation of sound legislation in the public interest would, in my opinion, be lost.

Of course, special interests would be deposed, and the lock-step influence of partisan politics on members would be lessened. Power would be shifted from those who now exercise it--the lobbyists, political bosses, sundry elites, and assorted privileged sycophants--to those who constitutionally ought to exercise it, the citizenry. These interests can be expected to vigorously oppose such a shift in power.

Of course, the newly deposed power elites would respond, probably using technology, in an effort to re-enslave the Washington political establishment to their narrow and selfish ends. One of the cautions in the Ronfeldt essay acknowledges this.

A key expectation about governance is that the new technology benefits society over the state, and thereby strengthens the prospects for democracy....But in the United States and other leading democracies, the new technology may also lie behind trends that could undermine the democratic process: e.g., the growth of single-issue politics, media sound-bites, targeted mailings, and public surveillance.

 Ronfeldt wrote these words in 1992, and we certainly have seen the proliferation of single-issue politics, media sound-bites, targeted mailings, and public surveillance--all, I think, to the detriment of the common good, the health of our democratic process, and the quality of public policy issuing forth from our national legislature. The excerpt above from the Phillips’s book also makes mention of the fact that the "electronic revolution...has aided pressure groups to blitz Washington...."

But that just means that public vigilance must be maintained and continuing revisions to the policy-making process made so that the public interest remains paramount and the locus of power remains where it should constitutionally. The public must have available to it the same tools (i.e., the same information and communications technology) that are available to the power elites and the same degree and ease of access to information that these groups have. Information and communications technology are already available. What we need to accomplish this level of access is a Congress disposed to put that information on-line.

If the early experience of businesses with technology is any indication, the stranglehold that bureaucracy has on government efficiency and responsiveness may be broken through the application of appropriate technology and the opening up of public information not now available to the public. According to Ronfeldt, the private sector has found that technology can eliminate hierarchy and bring about a flatter organizational structure. He noted that

top management finds that new information systems may enable them to run complex operations without relying heavily on middle management. In...other cases, the technology may open new channels for lower echelons and outside investors to challenge management decisions.

Applied to government, if the effect is a flatter organization, well and good. If the effect is to eliminate middle management, the minions of bureaucracy, well and good. If the effect is to open up access to the information and processes of government, well and good.

Returning to the issue of the degree and ease of access to information, the public needs to have ready access to several different kinds of information if it is to be as informed as it needs to be to vote, to properly influence the direction of policy-making, and to counteract the influence of the special interest elites. Again, technology makes that possible and Kenneth Weinstein, Director of the Government Reform Project at the Heritage Foundation, has put forward a suggestion (in a paper entitled "Needed: A Congressional Freedom of Information Act") which ought to be adopted posthaste by Congress.

The key materials that Weinstein suggests be put on the Internet are too numerous to list here (check them out on the Net--http://www.townhall.com/library/categories/govern/bg1098.html), but they would do much in his opinion to

improve public access to documents and information that previously had been the domain of congressional staffers and influence peddlers. Increased public access would help level the playing field between ordinary citizens and high-powered lobbyists, whose ability to obtain inside information often enables them to influence legislation.

If a sense of political efficacy is to be restored among the citizenry, the playing field will have to be leveled. In this, the Information Age, information or the access thereto is a clear source of power. Those who do not have access to it are effectively disfranchised.

Skeptical? I can understand that, and there probably are better proposals. One thing of which I am sure, however, is that the status quo is not the answer; change of some sort must be forthcoming, and I am convinced that it must involve technology. The application of technology does not mean that the war between special and public interests is over; it means only that the public interest forces will be able to make full and fair use of the latest weaponry.

As the Ronfeldt essay notes, information is a new source of power, and "recognition is spreading...that the new technologies may profoundly alter the nature of political power, sovereignty, and governance." Since this transformative effect is inevitable, why not channel it in the most politically positive direction by using it to effect major reform in the areas of the political process we find most objectionable and most contrary to the founding principles?

Phillips’ proposal could do just that--decentralize political power and diminish the power of special interests, restore sovereignty to the people (a central tenet of our system of government), and change the structure of governance from one that merely acts upon people to a more reciprocal relationship. That last point is an important one, because unless the people in a democracy feel a strong sense of political efficacy, they will not participate. I am not speaking here of participation only in a quantitative sense, but in a qualitative sense as well. Participation is not only about voting, but voting with a sense of purpose, with one’s mind focusing on two levels simultaneously--the first being the exigencies of the moment, which are immediate and must be dealt with; the second, perhaps the most important, certainly the most difficult level, being longer term view. If voters do not feel a sense of political efficacy, they won’t vote, or if they do, they will more than likely not include the longer view in their decision making. The consequences for democratic rule are not promising in either case.

 Author: Edwin F. Brown, Jr. or "Chip" Brown as he is know to his friends, was a high school teacher (economics and government) and administrator for 23 years in Conway at Conway High School. He now teaches at Coastal Carolina University. He served on the Conway city council for 16 years and on the S. C. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations since 1994.

This article appeared in the Fall 1997 issue of The South Carolina Policy Forum magazine.