ICT = [I]nnovation, [C]ollaboration, [T]ransformation?

8 Nov 2018 | Published by Camilla Wanckel & Julia Fleischer

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

The digital era and new developments in information and communication technologies (ICT) provide new opportunities for policy makers, allowing them to make use of instruments such as open and big data, algorithmic and predictive analytics or even artificial intelligence to inform policy design and decision-making. For example, the UK Defence Secretary launched an artificial intelligence (AI) research lab that aims to enhance the use of AI for defence purposes. Similarly, the Federal Foreign Office in Germany is currently testing a software-based analytical system to predict the occurrence of crises.

In addition to information processing tools that are applied to support and improve policy design, governments increasingly use ICT-tools that are intended inter alia to enhance collaboration within and between government organizations. In Norway, an inter-ministerial working group initiated a platform called Digit that seeks to coordinate the use of social media among Norwegian ministries. In the Netherlands, the digital workplace Pleio serves as a platform for civil servants to discuss and support new policy ideas. The project eLegislation of the German Federal government is currently working to digitalize the whole legislative process to facilitate collaboration between all actors involved in legislation. The project also involves the introduction of an electronical sustainability assessment tool (eNAP) intended to help determining the impact of new regulations on the Sustainable Development Goals.

Technological tools like these are generally presumed to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of governments, by facilitating access to information, fostering more consistent and consensus-oriented problem-solving, or by enabling faster data analysis. However, while these technologies certainly have the potential to improve policy-making and its underlying processes, our knowledge on what actually happens inside government organizations is limited.

With more data and information landing on many policy-makers’ desks, the need for coordination and the demands on information processing are growing. In other words: When new technologies provide an increased amount of data, governments also need the capacity to process them. How do government organizations deal with these challenges and what are the effects on collaboration and internal processes? Are new ICT-tools layered upon existing structures and procedures, or do they induce changes in pre-existing processes and routines?

To approach these questions, we conducted an expert survey with more than 300 academics from the ten TROPICO countries who have conducted research on these issues, including social scientists, legal scholars, historians, and economists.

According to these experts, ICT-tools have an impact on internal policy formulation processes, but their effect on improving such policy design processes is moderate – and depends on which aspect one looks at: On a scale from 1 (low impact) to 10 (high impact), ICT increases the adoption of innovative procedures to some extent (approx. 4.1) whereas it increases the capacities for information processing more strongly (approx. 5.7). Moreover, the survey results indicate that ICT-tools also reduce the intensity of professional and of informal interactions, although this impact is only moderate (approx. 3.3 and 3.1 respectively). In short: ICT-tools for internal policy design may enhance opportunities to process information and to do this in more innovative ways, but they do not necessarily lead to more professional or informal interactions and collaboration within governments.

Several considerations may explain these survey results. On the one hand, bureaucrats may see novel ICT tools as a mean to collect ‘objective evidence’ and thus these tools are regarded to not require bigger changes in professional and informal interactions. On the other hand, bureaucrats may also be overloaded by the data and information available via ICT-tools and thus tend to neglect their use in such daily interactions. Yet another explanation might be that the increased use of ICT tools, such as cloud systems, digital dashboards, and other digital platforms, indeed may reduce the intensity of personal interactions between bureaucrats – and this currently rather moderate impact is going to grow with the rise of more ICT-tools used throughout governments to formulate government policy.

To gain deeper insights into the practice of ICT-tools and their effects on internal policy design, TROPICO is currently conducting comparative case studies in France, Germany, Hungary, and the Netherlands. These case studies will provide further information on how ICT-tools are used for policy formulation inside ministerial bureaucracies.