A European Perspective
The informational paradigm and the modern state
← 112 | 113 →The informational paradigm and the modern state
Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, Spain
1.The digital revolution and the modern state: an opportunity or a threat?
The concept of “Digital Revolution” defines how technology has changed the way of producing, recording and spreading information through analog, to mechanic, electronic and finally, digital devices. In computer engineering terms, it refers to the possibility of replicating the very exact information from one device to another with no loss of information, by the digital signal and its possibilities of doing this remotely (Shannon, Weaver 1963). The multiplier effect of these new Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and their capacity to spread and enrich information generate a new way of ordering human activity (Negroponte 1995). Therefore, information becomes the most important outcome in the new productive chain. This is the reason why The Digital Revolution is also known as the Third Revolution, that leads to the so-called Information (Bell 1976) or Network societies (Simmel 1950), which differ fundamentally from the societal orders of the past (Webster 2002). For Castells, this implies a change from the classical parameters of post-industrial societies based on three major adjustments (1997): a) communication channels will adapt to information; b) given the centrality of information for socialization, communities will adapt accordingly; c) the interaction among actors will become more flexible, breaking time-space barriers and producing hyper-connection.
Information Society, then, entails important challenges for all economic, social and cultural processes in societies (Giddens 2002) that have led to an ongoing debate about the nature of technology and its effects. In summary, there are two broad approaches that encompass the discussion: the technological determinism and the social determinism. The first one states that technology develops as the result of an internal dynamic and then, unmediated by any other influence, molds society to its patterns (Winner 1988). In fact, for many of the authors on this side of the debate, ICTs will work as a troubleshooter by reducing inequalities, building fairer societies, or improving the quality of democracies by increasing competitiveness (Bertucci 2005). On the contrary, social determinism ← 113 | 114 → presumes that specific technologies do not in themselves matter much at all. In other words, technological change would be nothing particularly distinctive or new that cannot be explained by referring to preexisting models of social and political change (Chadwick 2006). Therefore, to understand the changes that these specific technologies bring in the social context, we should only need to take into account the social forces that produced and guided the technological change. Over time, these two approaches have somehow converged in a middle ground position. Information and Communication Technologies represent a change in the forms of production, and a potential opportunity when understanding the relationship and transactions between individuals, corporations, and institutions in each society: peer to peer (p2p), person to computer (p2c), citizen or business to government (c2g, b2g), government to citizen or business (g2c, g2b), or government to government (g2g). However, these social actors and institutions will determine which way these technologies are used, adjusting and adapting to the needs and circumstances of each community (Norris 2001). As Chadwick states, it is necessary to find a more pragmatic approach that “would recognize that technologies have political properties while simultaneously placing their use in political contexts” (2006).
Hence, hyperconnectivity, understood as the outcome of communication via multiple means such as email, instant messaging, telephone, or Web 2.0, has been usually connected with the parallel consequences of what some social scientists have described as the “crisis of the Nation State” (Mitchell 1995; Held 1995; Beck 2007). In the context of globalization and regionalization, ICTs would reinforce the opportunities for forms of communication that are not predicated on the idea of a national community; under this view, governments would be unable to intervene or prevent the flow of information and capital across national boundaries, succumbing, instead, to the new scenario. As an example of this, Sunstein alerts about the increasing influence of Internet-based international regulatory bodies and their disconnection with respect to citizens: Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the International Transaction Analysis Association (ITAA), or the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) (2003).
Moreover, hyperconnectivity has also been presented as a solution for many of the illnesses of contemporary democratic regimes: increased political disaffection, especially against political parties, which have experienced its direct and indirect effects by decreased electoral turnouts and the dramatic decline on the number of their members (Katz & Mair 1992); (Holmes 1997); (Pharr, Putnam 2000); (Dalton 2004). A better informed society with communicational channels that facilitate a more interactive relationship with governments would ← 114 | 115 → theoretically be more qualified to send its demands and manifest its priorities, having a bigger say on agenda setting and policy making processes (Sakowicz 2003). Therefore, boosted citizen engagement (Barber 1984) could increase the efficiency on governments’ policy responsiveness and transparency (Dahlberg 2001; Leitner 2003). Accordingly, Trechsel et al. define “e-democracy” as “all the electronic means of communication that enable/empower citizens in their efforts to hold rulers/politicians accountable for their actions in the public realm. Depending on the aspect of democracy being promoted, e-democracy can employ different techniques for increasing transparency of the political process, for enhancing the direct involvement and participation of citizens, and improving the quality of opinion formation by opening new spaces of information and deliberation” (2003). However, this approach has been undermined by those who argue that hyperconnectivity is limited to those with “access”, suggesting that ICTs could enlarge societal divisions by generating what is commonly known as the “digital divide” (Norris 2001). Besides, the increased levels of information could also be understood as a decrease on citizens’ autonomy given individuals’ evidence accumulation and governmental and corporate incentives for surveillance (Morozov 2011). Whatever the approach to the “Digital Divide” and after the demarcation of this phenomenon, it seems evident that the appearance of Information and Communication Technologies has burgeoned the potential outcomes of networking, and participation in contemporary politics (Kooiman 1993).
2.e-Government as an accountability–reinforcing tool?
In the last twenty years, scholars working on New Public Management have described the process by which most of the Western democracies have reduced their classical administration style differences by setting a management style more suitable to the new technological environment and thus, characterized by the following five principles: “openess, participation, accountability, effectiveness and coherence” (EU-15). This new style of governance is normatively understood to represent a change from traditional bureaucratic hierarchies to pluricentric systems (Bekkers, Korteland 2005). Consequently, e-Governance has been defined as “a set of technology-mediated processes that have changed both the delivery of public services and the broader interactions between citizens and government” (UNESCO 2005).
In this context, e-Government is described as “the employment of the Internet and the world-wide-web for delivering government information and services to the citizens” (United Nations 2006). Accordingly, e-Government is understood to bring a series of potential efficient effects (Chadwick 2006).
← 115 | 116 → –Cost reduction: ICTs can reduce costs by decreasing staff levels with automating processes and introducing telematic administration. Yet, achieving the technological level to provide these kinds of services usually entails large investments that generate fixed costs related to technology maintenance and updating across time.
–Coordination or coherence: a solution for “stovepipe” administration culture, where each agency or department works isolated from the rest. This could create time optimization for citizens, by rationalizing administrative processes and presenting unified “front-ends” services. However, as Margetts pointed out, this will much depend on cultural patterns and political choices (1999).
–Effectiveness: a way of achieving administrative objectives for Departments or Agencies by reducing policy failure (Margetts 1999, p. 4653).
–Participation: this points to a potential reshaping of the relationship between civil servants and citizens. Much of this depends, as in the case of the rest of the aspects, however, on the levels of interactivity provided by government websites.
–Openness: the open government paradigm is “driven by opening up public data and services and facilitating collaboration for the design, production and delivery of public service. It is also about making governmental processes and decisions open, in order to foster citizen participation and engagement” (Commission 2012).
–Accountability: as it derives from the previous aspects, accountability has extended it’s meaning to embrace governmental openness and transparency initiatives, which aim at increasing both the control of government by the citizenry and public discussion between citizens and governments (Mulgan 2000).
The driving force behind accountability is the democratic imperative for government organizations to respond to demands from elected representatives and the wider public (Romzek 1994). In principle, “the diversification of stakeholders requires more public forms of accountability, in which information about the results of organizations are made accessible and transparent for citizens as consumers of public services, professionals and civil society” (Pina et al. 2007). In the following paragraphs, with the aim of overcoming the gap between theoretical postulates and empirical evidences, that is, to specify the effect of these technologies on accountability possibilities and outcomes, I present a brief analysis on the evolution of e-Government in Spain and its consequences for administrative transparency.
← 116 | 117 →3.e-Government and transparency outcomes
Transparency is known to be one of the most important channels of accountability, though also one of the main challenges for public administrations in the Information Society too (Merloni 2008). Bringing the administration closer to citizens as a way of improving democratic legitimacy contrasts with the strategic consequences of opening up to the public political leaders’ performance. Moreover, as Margetts underlines, in order to enhance the impact of electronic means on increasing transparency, citizens must be digitally empowered, and the institutional infrastructures must be able to deal with the generated needs (2006). Transparency depends not only on the types of technology used, or on the general public access to technology, but also on the institutional framework and political decision to support it.
As a recent comparative study of 19 OECD countries concludes, an overall examination of governmental websites of these countries showed that all governments are involved in Information Society initiatives albeit with different levels of development (Pina et al. 2007). In this sense, some authors argue that differences among governments do not come from different uses of ICTs but from their public administration styles and the legal requirements in each country; accordingly, the implementation of ICTs without the corresponding institutional reform of governmental accounting systems would only lead to limited success in enhancing accountability (Torres 2004). Nonetheless, several other studies demonstrate that ICTs are being used as an instrument to accomplish limited modernization goals, such as specific efficiency improvements, dissemination of information - not always bias-free - or enhancing public service delivery (Pollitt, Bouckaert 2000; Torres 2004; Pina et al. 2007).
Having said this, I here argue that the development of ICTs and the use of electronic means have not necessarily a direct effect on the specific decision of a government to be transparent. If, as Transparency International states, “transparency is about shedding light on rules, plans, processes and actions to know why, how, what, and how much”, the political nature of this decision makes inevitable taking into account the institutional and technological context in which these decisions are made, understanding the existing incentives and constraints for political elites.
4.The Spanish case
In less than forty years, Spain has evolved from an authoritarian regime to a democratic government with high levels of institutional and economic development. The recognition of a plural political system with a wide variety of actors, the display of a three-level decentralized public administration and the incorporation ← 117 | 118 → into the European Union and other relevant International Organizations as NATO, have characterized much of the recent history of this Southern European country.
The modernization process in Spain has been accompanied by the appearance of Information and Communication Technologies and the first attempts to implement an electronic administration in the European Union. Since 1995, the European Commission has tried to incentivize the e-Government process through several general plans (eEurope 2002, eEurope 2005 and eEurope 2010), and specific plans like the “Government Online” in 1995 or the “e-Government 2011-2015 Action Plan”. Hence, this set of norms and laws underlies the legal foundations for the development of e-government in Spain.
Furthermore, besides the legal framework given by the 1978 Constitution, most of the scholars agree on the 1992 Law of Juridical Regime of Public Administrations and Common Administrative Procedure as the starting point for the e-Government development in Spain. After that, a 1999 Royal Decree transposed the 1999/93/CE European Directive, which set a common framework for the electronic signature; in 2002, the Law of Services of Information Society and Electronic Commerce (34/2002) was passed, including the protection of consumer interests, and the broad development of the ICTs; in 2003, a Royal Decree led to the regulation of telematic notifications, certificates and transmissions; finally, the 2007 Law of Electronic Access of Citizens to Public Services recognized the right of citizens to communicate with the administration by electronic means, accordingly pushing the latter to develop the appropriate telematic platforms so that citizens could effectively have access to information and services, present requests, applications or appeals, make payments, or receive notifications or communications from the Administration. With greater or lesser speed (depending on the region), the regional development of e-Government also started in mid-nineties, and at the moment of this research all governments have developed systems of web information (Muñoz-Cañavate and Hípola 2011).
In sort, the Spanish case encompasses a set of characteristics that makes it worth studying it:
–A transition to democracy happening in a context of power devolution to the regions (17 Autonomous Communities and two Autonomous Cities) and a full incorporation into the European supranational sphere.
–The parallel development of the so-called Information Society and the incorporation of ICTs into the young and emerging administration.
As Figure 1 shows, the evident delay on the maturity of Spanish institutions and economy has caused a significant difference with respect to Europe in relation to basic indicators, as for instance, the average percentage of Internet Users.
← 118 | 119 →Figure 1. Internet Access evolution in EU-15 and Spain (2003-2012)
Source: Own elaboration from data obtained from Eurostat Information Society index
What I here present is a general approximation to the development of the Spanish Information Society, drawing the online c2g and g2c relations and possible accountability outcomes, by the exposition of basic descriptive statistics. To that end, I take advantage of the recent release of the Transparency Scores by Transparency International Organization and a set of national and international statistical indicators.
With respect to the former, I employ the three waves index for 2010, 2012 and 2014 at the regional level; this is an index that is formed by a battery of 80 items measuring the availability or not of specific information services in the Autonomous Community governments’ official websites1. For the latter, I use data ← 119 | 120 → from Spanish National Institute of Statistics on citizens’ web usage patterns in accordance to internationally accepted e-Government services. Moreover, Orange Foundation provides a battery of 26 items analyzing the availability of online service offer for both, citizens (16 items) and businesses (10 items) between 2010 and 2013 in Spanish Autonomous Communities2.
Given that most of the available data covers the pre and post Global Financial Crisis period in Spain, I also control for the retrospective evaluation of regional governments based on Spanish National Sociological Research Centre 2010 to 2012 series3, and regional Gross Domestic Product per capita levels from 2010 to 2013.
← 120 | 121 →6.Findings
Figure 2. Evolution of Internet Penetration in Spain, by Autonomous Communities (2003-2012)
Source: Own elaboration from data obtained from Spanish National Institute of Statistics
For the sake of clarity and parsimoniousness, I have chosen to present the main patterns of the Spanish case by graphically displaying the main relationships through the theoretically chosen variables. Figure 2, disaggregates by Autonomous Communities (from 2003 to 2012) the mean percentage of Internet users at the national level shown in Figure 1. This basic temporal approach to the evolution of Internet penetration in Spanish Autonomous Communities highlights two relevant patterns: first, as it has been the case in the rest of European countries, Spanish regions have experienced a linear increase in the percentage of Internet users as technology evolves and is implemented (from an average of 30 to 50% in 10 years); second, there is a high level of variation across regions that apparently has slightly decreased in the last years.
← 121 | 122 →Figure 3. Internet Penetration and GDP per capita in Spain by Autonomous Communities (2003-2012)
Source: Own elaboration from data obtained from Spanish National Institute of Statistics
As Figure 3 demonstrates, the heterogeneous penetration of Internet in the Spanish Autonomous Communities could be to a large extent a consequence of the various levels of regional economic development (17 regional observations from 2003 to 2012). As I have described above, although cost reduction is generally presented as one of the most compelling features of e-Government, a full ICT infrastructure and the capability to access it by citizens depends largely depends on an initial disbursement that clearly constraints the chances of some to be connected from the beginning. Basque Country, Balearic Islands, Catalonia, and Madrid are good examples of the correlation between Internet users and regional GDP per capita.
← 122 | 123 →Figure 4. Citizen Usage of Regional Governments’ e-Services
Source: Own elaboration from data obtained from Spanish National Institute of Statistics
Even if there are diverse levels of Internet penetration among the regions as a consequence of the obvious existence of institutional constraints, however, until now, Information Seeking has been the most common online activity developed by citizens in Spain (Figure 4). This logically follows from the fact that since the beginning of the nineties, almost every institution that has gone online has provided information about the available online services through the Internet. Indeed, static information is the first step for measuring electronic administration in most of international indices. Although increasingly used, downloading documents and filling forms seem to still be in a clear secondary stage from a user point of view. In any case, these results could be clearly influenced by the decision of these regional governments to underline some types of services instead of others.
← 123 | 124 →Figure 5. Regional levels of e-Services
Source: Own elaboration from data obtained from Spanish National Institute of Statistics, Orange Foundation and National Sociological Research Centre
Figure 5 shows precisely this, by differentiating between the Online e-Services Availability Scores (Orange Foundation) for regional governments between 2010 and 2014. Most of the autonomous governments have reached high percentages of service availability, being all above 50 for all the scrutinized period. It also shows the percentage of Internet penetration at the regional level, as well as the aggregate retrospective positive evaluations of regional governments along the worst recent economic years in Spain. The decision to introduce the latter responds to the intuition that under the existing economic and political challenges, regional governments could decide to develop their online services with the purpose of improving their low approval rates. However, as it can be observed, the relationship between these variables is practically non-existent, suggesting that neither retrospective regional evaluations nor the existing percentage of Internet users have a meaningful effect on the decision to develop a more complete online E-services offer. Still, this last finding could be reasonably explained by the fact that the penetration of Internet in all of these populations is above 50 for most of the analyzed years.
← 124 | 125 →Figure 6. Transparency and e-Government development
Source: Own elaboration from data obtained from Orange Foundation and International Transparency
Finally, figure 6 analyzes the relationship between the decision by regional governments to develop a more complete offer of e-Services and the score obtained by each of these regions in terms of transparency. While the first measure tells us the level of available online services both for citizens and businesses, the second one measures the amount of available information with respect to certain relevant political processes and policies such as the budget, public contracts, or urban planning. Again, as it happens in the previous case, it is difficult to define a clear pattern. While the overall correlation of both variables is low (r=0.22), in few cases (Andalucia, Castilla La Mancha, La Rioja, or Madrid), there seems to be a parallel relationship in time between the development of one and the development of the other one. In many others, the effect of the economic crisis on online service provision has not affected the decision to become transparent. 2012 seems to be a tipping point for many Autonomous Communities, which in the middle of the economic crisis decided to signal their commitment towards the implementation of an improvement in their online transparency outcomes. It is relevant to highlight that many did so right before the approval of the 19/2013 ← 125 | 126 → Transparency Law at the national level that set up the overall regulatory framework. The strategic decision to appear especially open to the public in a time of generalized pessimism as a consequence of low macroeconomic standards and uncovered cases of corruption is clearly stated in its preamble: “those countries with higher levels of transparency and good government regulation have usually more strong institutions, subject to the scrutiny of the public, enabling economic growth and social development”.
The results confirm the initial argument of this study showing that the development and implementation of ICTs do not have a direct effect on increased transparency, by themselves. As the Spanish case shows, even within a same country, with the same legal framework, with a parallel development of Information Society and a young and emerging administration, the results obtained in terms of their levels of e-government, and its impact on transparency are clearly heterogeneous. To understand where such heterogeneity comes from, as Margetts pointed out, other institutional factors such as the regional economic development as well as the implementation and use of ICTs has to be attended.
On the other hand, the results confirms that e-government has a key role enforcing accountability, by providing information and public services through electronic means, establishing a more open, direct and closer relationship with citizens.
ICTs could help out for developing a closer relationship among citizens and governments, but they are not enough for solving modern state problems by themselves. Then, as Chadwick argues, Modern-states are not in crisis but they have several challenges to deal with in the near present. To that end both, governments and citizens have a big job ahead.
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1The Transparency Index classifies the items in five categories which are: Information related to the autonomous community; citizens-society relationship; financial transparency; transparency on public contracts, and transparency on urban planning. All indicators are coded with 0 (non available) or 1 (full availability) producing a final 100% rate.
2The index is configured by 5 clusters where items are gathered as follows: Income generating services (citizens pay government services online); Tradeoffs (Public services provided to citizens and businesses in return for taxes and contributions); Register Services (relating to the registration of data related to activities or persons as a result of administrative obligations); Permits and Licenses (Documents provided by administrative agencies legislated as necessary); Subsidies (Disposition without direct monetary compensation to persons or public or private entities, to encourage activity or social interest or promote the achievement of a public purpose). Every indicator is graded in a 0-100% scale, measuring the quality of e-services in 4 stages which are: Stage 0: non availability; Stage 1: Information availability, between 0 and 0.99, means an availability between 0% and 24%; Stage 2: Unidirectional information, between 1 and 1.99 means an availability between 25% and 49%; Stage 3: Bidirectional information, between 2 and 2.99, means an availability between 50% and 74%; Stage 4: Transactional process, between 3 and 3.99, means an availability between 75% and 99%.
3Spanish National Sociological Research Centre: Autonomous Barometer, 2012, Nº 2956 and 2010, Nº 2829.