This book is a joint effort of researchers who, for quite a substantial time, have been involved in research-projects and programmes for a considerable amount of time in trying to chart and reflect upon the implications of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for Public Administration. One of the platforms for exchanging results and ideas on this subject was the Permanent Study Group on Informatization in Public Administration of the European Group for Public Administration (EGPA). During its Xth meeting in Budapest (September 1996) the Group decided to elaborate an ambitious plan to compile a book to present the main results of research in this field to practitioners, colleagues and students in the field of Public Administration.
Those who attended this meeting in Budapest were impressed by the rapid changes in the Hungarian public administration and society after the fall of the communist regime. In the discussions about the way in which the Hungarians were coping with the enormous challenge to build an effective and democratic public administration in the midst of an upcoming market economy, several people were avidly hinting at the great potentialities ICTs would have to support that ambitious agenda. Informatization was recognized as an important new trend in public administration.
Not only in the former East-European countries, but also in their West-European counterparts, informatization is linked with all sorts of political and organizational initiatives (e.g. service orientation, new public management, business process redesign and direct democracy), that were assumed by both public administration practitioners and academicians to support a further modernization of public administration.
Since the fifties, computers had largely facilitated and the transformation of the minimal ‘Night-Watch-state’ into the modem ‘Welfare-state’, through their contribution to their effectivity, productivity and efficiency. In most Handbooks of Public Administration, computers are seen as neutral instruments and the role of computer technologies in the transformation of public administration is neglected. Both in practice and especially by academia, one is normally confronted with a typical combination of a blind spot, if not a certain disparagement, for operational processes in public administration and an ‘is this not just a new kind of typewriter for my secretary?’ attitude towards information and communication technologies. In discussions and reflections regarding the importance of ICTs for public administration, one also observes that, although most governments were quite experienced users of the first generations of these technologies most of the information-systems that were introduced in public administration were built and implemented with methodologies that were simply derived from the domain of market organizations.
In the mid-eighties, however, the rapid developments in the field of information and communication technologies gave rise to the conviction that a) the use and implications of these technologies transcend the mere operational levels of public administration, and that b) the further introduction and use of these technologies need an distinct public administration perspective. Irvine and Kassel were the first research groups that became active in this domain, followed by groups in Tilburg/Rotterdam and Glasgow and Nottingham. In Europe, the permanent study-group we mentioned became a platform for exchange between these groups and for individual (European) colleagues who are doing research in this domain.
The idea to write a book in which, on the basis of the work of both our American and European colleagues, an overview of the implications of ICTs could be presented was particularly fueled by some other discussions during the meeting in Budapest. In these discussions, some participants took the position that ICTs would not only give rise to important transformations in the practice of public administration. Informatization, they claimed, would also directly affect the body of knowledge of public administration itself. As we will try to demonstrate in this book, informatization developments in public administration do not only challenge the existing body of knowledge of the public administration discipline, but they are also opening up new perspectives and paradigms.
After the meeting in Budapest, the editors of this book made plans for the book and invited authors to contribute towards it. A specimen chapter of the kind of contributions they expected was written by one of the editors and put on the Internet. In September 1997, during its meeting in Leuven (another old and beautiful European city that has been important for this endeavor), the first draft chapters were presented and discussed. In the months to follow revisions were made, and some of the Leuven discussions were continued by E-mail. Therefore, E-mail and Internet were instrumental in integrating the efforts and commitment of each of the contributing authors into this book.