Comment: Polyform or uniform?

23 Nov 2004

One of the great promises that e-government brought was easy access for citizens who need or want to get on to a public service agency. That’s because technology makes it possible to connect the hitherto unconnectable – and to do loads of stuff such as giving information only once while letting the agencies share data as required and allowing people to help themselves over the internet. In fairness, a lot of success has been achieved in the way we can now get at services over the internet.

True enough, there are loads of people who don’t or indeed won’t have access to the internet. And in this post-hype era we don’t need to pinch ourselves to realise that the possibility of contacting government online isn’t exactly a big enticement for deepening penetration and participation. In relation to penetration, we still hear the purveyors of technology, banging on about the need to increase the level of PC penetration in the home without much in the way of a compelling reason for making the investment. But that’s another debate.

In relation to e-government, people are realising more and more that it’s probably about how to join-up government behind the scenes rather than simply changing delivery channels. Yet there seems to be little sign of much real progress in joining up behind the scenes, even taking account of the fact that it wouldn’t be very visible anyway.

For Ireland, of course, the arrival of decentralisation may have added another layer of difficulty for those who would join up because the scattering of civil servants around the country appears to some to be a major move in the opposite direction, especially for those (who should be) engaged in joined-up policy making. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking that the decision itself is an interesting example of disconnected thinking.

The problem with joining up is that as soon as it’s mentioned some people see it as a technology issue and become consumed by the prospect of constructing the dream corporate network, with all the bells and whistles that come with the all too expensive kit. Of course, the kit doesn’t come with instructions or suggestions about building an organisation of people who should be joined up in their thinking, their actions or their perceptions of what they are actually about.

The fundamental problem is to identify and address the issues around moving from a ‘polyform’ to a ‘uniform’ structure of administration, given the huge difficulties that contradictory nature of the two forms of organisation suggest.

In the polyform variety, we have many smaller and independent territories whose sovereignty is based on power or control over a particular constituency or service. It is characterised by differences in identities and branding, by variations in behaviour and by differing standards, experiences and expectations. You also tend to find greater scope for individual creativity and a stronger focus on organisational self-esteem. The individual can make a recognisable impact and can have more freedom of expression (probably because of the limited impact of subversion or radicalism on a smaller organisation).

At first glance, the uniform organisation envisaged by joining up is the direct opposite. Joined-up government suggests ‘one-ness’ with common rules and regulations, and common standards and procedures. It also suggests ‘sameness’ in terms of identity and branding; in terms of behaviour and performance and in experience and expectation. The individual is less relevant; individuality is constrained to protect the monolith; and the corporation is sovereign.

The funny thing about all of this is that dealing with the branding and identity doesn’t appear as an issue on anyone’s plan for integration or joining up. Yet it is an issue that will have a profound impact on the success or failure of integration initiatives into the future. These issues tend to manifest themselves in turf wars and in people obstructing cross-organisational developments for reasons that don’t always hold water.

While the concerned citizen might cry “shame” (or worse!) at the wasteful behaviour of public servants, the problem is not actually with those who are causing resistance. I would suggest that it lies more with those who are charged with getting all of the hearts and minds to think and act in a positive way – to accept the changes involved and to make it possible to really transform the way the State and the citizen interact with each other. Yet you’d wonder it the expertise and resources are available within the system to address these challenges? Or indeed if there is even an understanding of the magnitude or significance of the issues involved?

Decentralisation, just like e-government, is in danger of being treated as a logistical exercise. There’s certainly a big push going on to get the properties – the office blocks, warehouses the networks and the people to populate them – with little evidence of much thought being given to the impact of scattering and diluting the considerable resource that Ireland has developed over the past half century and more.

E-government is generally considered and talked about as relating to service delivery in a joined-up way. But if you look closely at how departments, agencies and offices interact and work interdependently it is probably more like looking at how atoms and molecules relate to each other in a complex chemical compound. So a more appropriate brand for making these changes may well be quantum government – where we look at the behaviour of the tiny particles – the ‘qubits’ – or the people as they behave towards each other in the molecular and very complex world of government.

But even if they did pull together the best minds in the world in order to deal with all of these people issues, has anyone ever asked if joining-up (or decentralisation, for that matter) will add any value to the public service? Maybe there are good service reasons for keeping some things separate – for capitalising on the brand pride and identity loyalty that human beings tend to be driven by. Then again, maybe not. But has anybody looked into it?

By Syl O’Connor