Revolution, transformation and reinvention: questioning the 'inevitability' of e-government

Horrocks, Ivan (2008). Revolution, transformation and reinvention: questioning the 'inevitability' of e-government. In: Against the Flow: realism and critiques of contemporary thought, 5 Apr 2008, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAC), London.



Although opinions differ over the timing of the first claims that the development of new information and communications technologies (ICTs) were driving a ‘revolution’ that would propel societies worldwide into an information age what is clear is that these assertions have now been an ever more prominent feature of academic, political, journalistic and practitioner discourse for approaching two decades. This techno-optimist view – which basically sees technology as politically neutral and, more often than not, historically inevitable (and is therefore highly determinist) – allied with claims for a fundamental shift in economic and social relations, from terrestrial structures and communities of geography, to virtual networks and the ‘space of flows’, has proved symbolically and ideologically crucial to the dimension of the ‘revolution’ I focus on in this paper: e-government. In short, my objective is an analysis of where the current cultural and structural forms of e-government have come from.

Why is this important? Because e-government is an excellent example of the ‘…multitude of prefixes such as ‘new’, ‘cyber’, ‘e’ and ‘virtual’ that were [are] employed to distinguish the emerging novel economic, social and organisational forms from those deemed stuck in the obsolete past and thus condemned to the dustbin of history. (Knights et al 2007: 748). As Joseph argues, the overstatement of the theories of the information society/network society/economy of signs and spaces that underpin these forms creates the ‘…paradox of a theory being at once misleading and yet socially influential.’ (Joseph 2008: 1). Thus a further objective of this paper is to illustrate the relevance of Joseph’s argument to e-government, and government for the information age more generally.

E-government is defined as consisting of two sets of interrelated and interdependent cultural and structural properties. First, those that relate to the use of ICTs (primarily the Internet) to provide the medium through which interactions between states and citizens take place. Second, those that relate to the use of ICTs for intra and inter organisational change that it is argued (by the advocates of e-government) are necessary to the efficient, effective, and economic ‘deliver’ of the first form of e-government.

This paper identifies and discusses the properties of the cultural system (i.e. ideas, theories, beliefs, explanations, opinions, and so on) that it is suggested have acted, and continue to act, as mediatory mechanisms which condition and shape the development and application of particular forms of technology intensive government and public services and their reproduction globally. The starting point for this analysis is the largely technical literature of the 1960s and 70s that deals with the technologies that underpinned the development of the Internet and then broaden out to material relating to the Internet in general. The sections that follow then deal with the emergence of ‘government for the information age’ specifically, both in the USA and Europe, and the relationship between these and other structural and cultural phenomenon of government and public services. The closing sections of the paper focus on e-government in the UK specifically, before expanding out to briefly examine the globalisation of e-government.

The paper concludes by arguing that the cultural significance of the information age and network society paradigms has primarily been to provide what Archer (1995) refers to as the ‘concomitant complementarities’ necessary for the emergence and subsequent domination of neo-liberalism and the structures necessary to this political and economic project. Furthermore, and crucially, by emphasising the (claimed) inevitability of both the technological and social dimensions of the information age any attempt to question these ideas and the entities that emerge from them can be, and routinely are, dismissed as anti-progressive or plain Luddite.

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