Information Technology in a City Enterprise

By on January 19th, 2018 in Commentary, Entries, Ethics, Magazine Articles, Societal Impact

In this commentary I discuss the practice of Information Technology (IT) in the City Enterprise and, in particular, why business process owners and IT practitioners should reexamine their understanding of what Information Technology is and means. As used here, the City Enterprise consists of Orlando, Florida, municipal government as an organizational entity with employees and physical assets. I further define the Enterprise as having political legitimacy through the democratic process, one empowered with specific legal authority (such as law enforcement and taxation) and with obligations to deliver services to individual citizens and to the public collective. Fundamentally, the City Enterprise is a social structure.

Information Technology

Information Technology is commonly defined as the collection of IT artifacts (hardware, software, data, information, and the rest) as tools and systems designed to be available for humans to achieve their objectives and outcomes — to collaborate, to store, to manipulate, and so forth. Our natural anthropocentrism inclines us to regard tools as separate and distinct from ourselves. Tools exist for our use to achieve some end. This utilitarian view represents the conventional wisdom about what technology is and means [1]. We accept this unconsciously and, therefore, uncritically.

A means/ends distinction may be useful for the purposes of designing technology (though, I shall argue that this reasoning is incomplete). We take for granted that artifacts are created by rational design and engineering efforts to solve practical problems, wholly according to criteria such as appropriateness, efficiency, and simplicity. We are predisposed to think of the process as technical and free of societal influence. In reality, the process is not technically neutral. The final artifact is just one of many possibilities, subject to influences of budgets, technology availability, time-to-market pressures, and user preferences. Upon use, individual users immediately transform it according to their unique needs, preconceptions, preferences, and social background. Microsoft Word is an example of an extremely capable product, but one in which only a small fraction of its rich possibilities is used by an individual at a particular time. It becomes, at each use, a personally edited version of the complete word processing application.

A smartphone is designed, produced, and marketed as an object to assist us in our daily errands. We do things with the neutral technical capability of the device, yet individual patterns of use vary widely. A smartphone in the hands of a teenager is vastly different than the same device in the coat pocket of a business executive. That the two physical devices are interchangeable is irrelevant. It is in use that they acquire form, function, and meaning.

In our enthusiasm to adopt technology we often forget its social effects and the extent to which it affects us. We ascribe agency to humans and regard ourselves as an essentially different and separate reality from inanimate technology [2]. When we locate agency in the human the prominence of the technological artifact fades and, in the extreme, we disregard it completely.

To illustrate, consider a modern automobile. As an intricate mechanical and electronic object it represents the quintessential technological artifact. From the point of view of the vehicle traveling along a straight highway, how does it change from the right lane to the left? Most people, and certainly experienced drivers, will report two actions consisting of a slight counterclockwise rotation of the steering wheel followed by a return to its original position. Not only is this answer wrong (in fact, a correcting clockwise rotation is necessary to return to the original heading) but, to the point, it shows our reflexive response to grant privilege to the human. The question was about the vehicle, not the driver. The vehicle-as-artifact quietly vanishes. References to its user interface aside (e.g., steering wheel or rearview mirror), we ignore the vehicle completely and grant all our attention, and agency, to the human.

If we reverse the roles and grant privilege to the artifact we surrender control and risk an irrational conclusion that we are the “object.” A forgotten password-as-artifact will temporarily prevent our logging into a system; however, this interaction neither objectifies the human nor objectifies the artifact.

Citizen trust and confidence in the public institution and notions of the public good are, in many ways, the bottom line for the public sector.

The means/ends distinction obscures a subtle but important point alluded to earlier — that of the co-dependency of artifacts/humans and humans/artifacts. The ontological dualism that agency is located either in the human or in the artifact is unsatisfactory. They must be coupled because each influences the other during use. They are not separable in any meaningful sense.

We must further abstract the concept of artifacts and think of their discrete processing capabilities as realizable and meaningful only upon use. Artifacts cannot be dissociated from their contexts of operation and still be considered to “exist.” A forgotten password has no significance in and of itself. If we dispense with our anthropocentric point of view we find ourselves equivalent participants in a network of humans and artifacts that (temporarily) align to achieve particular effects. Artifacts become meaningful — they acquire their form and attributes — only through their relations with others in practice. From this perspective there is no distinction and separateness between human and technological elements. They mutually shape each other [3].

Introna [4] offers a vivid narrative of this dynamic:

Yet we most often do not consider these things that surround us beyond their instrumental value. They seem just to be there, available (or sometimes not), for us to draw upon. Lurking in the shadows of our intentional arc they sometimes emerge as relevant, become available, fulfill their function, and then slip back into the forgotten periphery of our intentional project — often doing the invisible work that was allocated to them in a now forgotten time and place. In many ways we have allocated to them the role of silent workers, the decor and backdrop that constitute the possibilities of our lives, but are best forgotten. Nevertheless, as we draw on them they become more and more part of who we are, or who we are becoming. It would not be incorrect to say that our existence has now become so entangled with the things surrounding us (if it even makes sense to use the notion of ‘surround’) that it is no longer possible to say, in any definitive way, where we end and they begin, and vice versa. … We are the beings that we are through our entanglements with things — we are thoroughly hybrid beings, cyborgs through and through.

This lengthy exposition of “Information Technology” highlights a hazard to which IT specialists and end users alike too often fall victim: It is nearly always a mistake to assume a separation between our tools and us. Technology does not simply appear but is the outcome of a complex and socially situated development and design process [2].

There are equally complex and socially situated dynamics in our interactions with technology, such as generational differences in the use of social media, the gradual blurring between physical and virtual realities, or our attention (or inattention) to issues of privacy or cybersecurity. Orlikowski & Iacono [1] call attention to socio-political forces when they contrast the experience of browsing the Internet in the United States, or China, or Saudi Arabia.

As participants in this process we must probe for and be alert to rules reflecting the work being automated, necessary resources (human and non-human), and rules that define the organizationally sanctioned way of executing that work [5]. Furthermore, we must closely examine these production systems and recognize they comprise a web of interacting parts that collectively (or not) feed a value chain to produce value.

End users, design engineers, subject matter experts, business process analysts, project managers, and executive sponsors must all be active participants. None can work in isolation.

We ignore this intra-relationship at the peril of inappropriate decisions during design, selection and implementation of technology, and misunderstood processes and uses, because means and ends cannot be separated. Doing so demands the social and technical exist as distinct entities that we can somehow “add” together. They do not. Tools constitute us as much as we constitute them [2].

We must challenge ourselves to transcend our familiar notion of the IT artifact as just an inanimate tool standing by for our use like some sort of mechanical device, neatly separable and distinct from us. It is far more productive to view Information Technology as practice. Here, the term “practice” does not refer to our own recitals, but to people interacting with the technology and vice versa from which outcomes emerge [5]. Outcomes may be predictable and positive but they can also be damaging. Examples of the latter include people misusing or misinterpreting information, and people being unaware of or ignoring basic cybersecurity practices. All can have serious consequences.

Here lies a challenge for which our academic experiences, our organizational structures and, indeed, our own career ambitions, ill equip us. These norms, career patterns, and reward structures are the ingredients of our daily routines and do not impel us to question our familiar boundaries. Our challenge is to critically examine these boundaries. We must challenge our understanding of what the practice of Information Technology is and means.

Business leaders and users alike must not compartmentalize Information Technology as a set of tools separate, distinct, and external to their core missions. The assignment of IT to “something the technical people take care of” is a common manifestation of this view. Its associated premise: “I don’t know (or need to know) anything about IT” is a false and empty conceit. It is us and we are it.

Likewise, technologists must not isolate themselves to the comfort of their hardware and software. They must become attentive to and fluent in the business domains within which Information Technology is embedded. They are co-participants in the City Enterprise, in which Information Technology is of its very fabric.

Public Value

I now turn to outcomes of Information Technology as practice; specifically, the production of public value by the City Enterprise. Political debates about what constitutes public value aside, I believe it reasonable to assert that public value is the net difference between public benefit and resources used to create that benefit, where benefit is concerned with financial value, political value, and social returns.

Numerous researchers over the past few decades have explored the meaning and measure of public value [1], [6]-[9]. What follows is a brief synopsis of the current literature on the matter of public value.

Public value differs in fundamental ways from value accounting in the private sector, where principal concerns are customer loyalty, profitability and growth. One can point to shareholder value as the measure of success for a publicly traded company; however, there is no easily measurable ‘bottom line’ in the public sector. Citizen trust and confidence in the public institution and notions of the public good are, in many ways, the bottom line for the public sector, or a reasonable proxy for it [10].

The concept of customer satisfaction differs between the private and public sectors. Private-sector customers engage in voluntary transactions, as individuals, which may or may not be satisfying and which they are free to repeat or not. The City Enterprise does not generally “sell” products or services in the familiar sense of the word. Building contractors and their clients are obligated, by the authority of the government, to pay for various permits and submit to inspections. An efficient process will lower their costs of doing business in the City and, in some sense, “generate satisfaction.” Regardless, the transactions remain involuntary. The value of their satisfaction (or conversely, the cost of their dissatisfaction) is more likely to be political than monetary since the City will continue to receive payment — at least within reasonable bounds.

There are certainly limits to this viewpoint and a valid argument can be made that an inefficient, indifferent permitting process has the potential to materially harm the local economy. The intent of this example is not to raise the legitimate question of how much efficiency is “enough,” but to emphasize the involuntary nature of the transaction.

Citizens do value things when they personally receive a direct benefit, but they also value things beyond self-interest. They differ from private-sector consumers insofar as they may have visions, goals, and aspirations for the society as a whole.Citizenship involves collective principles such as fairness, equality, rights of the weak and vulnerable, and justice. Public value, whether sourced from government, NGO’s or religious institutions, emerges in multiple ways, such as economic gain or protecting socially shared norms and expectations of fairness, trust, and legitimacy. Their definitions cannot be disentangled from the society within which they exist [11].

Cresswell, Burke, and Pardo [8] identify six classes of indicators where government Information Technology can affect interests of public stakeholders to produce public value:

  • Financial — having to do with current or anticipated income, asset values, liabilities, entitlements, and other aspects of wealth or risk. It can result from lowering the cost or increasing efficiency of government, and otherwise contributing to the financial benefit of the public.
  • Political — where impacts are made on personal or corporate influence in government actions or policy, their role in political affairs, or their influence in political parties and elections.
  • Social — concerning family and community relationships, group identity and status, social mobility, education, health, and safety.
  • Strategic — impacts on economic or political advantage or opportunities, goals and resources for innovation or planning.
  • Ideological — effects and perceptions of government policies and actions on beliefs, moral, or ethical commitments.
  • Stewardship — relating to actions seen to maintain the government’s value as a public asset. It includes infrastructure maintenance and trustworthiness through transparency, integrity, and legitimacy.

These indicators can be demonstrated in the context of a hurricane event. In its immediate aftermath, damage assessment and debris removal are among the priorities of a public works department (for brevity, I restrict my examination to these). Public works has additional priorities, of course, including flood control, utility and infrastructure repair, and many others. Police and fire departments are engaged. Permitting and code enforcement must mobilize to authorize emergency structural repairs. The entire City Enterprise responds.

Damage assessment involves collecting, organizing, evaluating, and sharing information among people and places. The process exemplifies Information Technology as practice, where people and information shape each other to build effective command and control for the disaster response.

Debris removal from public rights of way has intrinsic social value represented as protection of citizen well-being, including safety and restoration of some degree of normalcy. Social value is also affected by the public’s sense of fairness in how resources are allocated. Is the response impartial between economically depressed areas and affluent ones? Perceptions of inequity, if they happen, become incurred costs and net social value is thereby reduced. Financial public value is realized by enabling commerce and economic life to resume as roads reopen. An effective response enhances the public view of the City Enterprise as a good steward of the publicly-owned engineered infrastructure.

Moore [6] reminds us there are different kinds of resources available to government to create benefit. Money immediately comes to mind and it comes from the taxes levied on the public to spend on collective purposes. The other resource is legal authority, acquired by the government’s legitimate monopoly on the use of force to compel people to act in compliance with socially agreed purposes. Just as we are concerned about how much of our income is taken in taxes, we are also watchful of government-imposed limits on our personal freedoms in the name of collective purposes. All are finite resources a government must carefully manage.

Public Sector Value Chain

A public value chain links inputs of public resources (money, people, and authority) into a production system consisting of public policies, programs, procedures, and activities that produce transactions with clients and, ultimately, create some socially desired outcome. Client encounters and socially desired outcomes then reinforce the legitimacy and support of the City Enterprise which, in turn, are further inputs to its operational capacity and organizational production process [7, pp. 120-121].

When considering value it is common to distinguish between intrinsic and instrumental value. Something is said to have intrinsic value when it is valuable for its own sake as opposed to being valuable for the sake of something else to which it is related in some way [12]. The latter is said to have instrumental (or extrinsic) value. The instrumentally valued thing derives its value from that which it helps create in some way, i.e., something that is good for its own sake.

As a concrete example, we might say that using Information Technology to publish crime mapping data improves the efficiency to select a safe place to live (which, for the sake of argument, we will claim has intrinsic value). Consider the value chain at play: There is a production process of raw crime data (necessitating law enforcement and criminals), data curation (where deliberate practical and ethical decisions are made about what and how much detail to make public) and, finally, tools and procedures to store, collate, map, and publish it to a public web data portal. Specific socio-techno-economic conditions must exist for a consumer to receive value. He or she must have Internet connectivity and access to a properly configured computer or other device. There must be a sufficient level of technical sophistication to use the device, find the portal and navigate it. Finally, a user must be sufficiently map/language-literate to interpret the information presented. From this seemingly simple proposition of publishing crime data to create social value we can see a confluence of different value chains that, in the collective, produce the enabling conditions — the instrumentally valued outcomes — for choosing a safe place to live. This example also serves to illustrate the difficulties of disentangling human and technological elements.

Moore [7] notes that the public agency at the center of the production process does not operate alone. The operational capacity to produce public value includes “partners” and “co-producers,” emphasizing the fact that most public agencies have to achieve results in contexts where they represent only a part (often a small part) of the overall system that produces desired results. For example, economic conditions for economic development also depend on the actions of private banks and companies. These are the partners and co-producers.

Change in Culture Needed

I have argued that Information Technology, as a pervasive component of the City Enterprise and of our own lives, should be understood to mean phenomena that exist in practice — as action that shapes us as much as we shape it. Absent the social and organizational context of its use, it has little meaning.

To compartmentalize Information Technology as a tool, external to our core missions and sitting passively by — to be used then put away — is to miss the central thesis of this paper: It is only through use (enactment) that some subset of the constituent rules and resources of the technology are instantiated and reconstituted to structure individual actions. As each affects the other it is absolutely essential that social contexts (or organizational settings, if you prefer) be well understood before particular technologies are selected and implemented. Failure to do so can and does result in missed opportunities (even harm) to realize the full value of what Information Technology can offer the City Enterprise, its citizens, and the public.

Creation of public value is the core mission of the City Enterprise and, by extension, of the practice of Information Technology. Indeed, this is the reason for its existence. Its success depends on building citizenship and earning the trust and confidence of those it serves. The City of Orlando expresses this in its stated mission “to deliver public services in a knowledgeable, responsive and financially responsible manner.”

A change in culture is needed if we are to realize the full potential of Information Technology — a change that will require accomplishing the following actionable recommendations:

  • We must challenge ourselves to consider how our actions contribute to public value creation and where those actions lie in the value chain. As we have seen, creation of public value is often the result of a confluence of separate value chains that may exist within or between separate functional areas. Recognition and reflection of how these outcomes come to be can lead to new and innovative ideas about improving the operational capability of the City Enterprise.
  • All stakeholders have an active role to play in planning, selecting, designing, and using Information Technology as practice. Because Information Technology can never exist in isolation, business users and IT staff must become equal partners. There are no “technology projects.” All projects are inherently business projects in which Information Technology is embedded.
  • A corollary is that business managers and their staff are not excused from participating in Information Technology decisions, simply by asserting they are not IT experts. Strategic and operational decisions are needed. Design and use of these systems is shaped as much by their organizational and sociological setting as the technical details of computing. Full participation is essential.
  • Just as non-IT personnel are not excused from participating in decisions for the reasons mentioned, IT managers and their staff must have meaningful dialogs with their end-user counterparts and learn their operational functions and capabilities. IT has a unique vantage point of the entire City Enterprise and is remiss to ignore it.

Executing these recommendations across the City Enterprise poses a significant management challenge, as well as commitment. As mentioned earlier, existing organizational norms, career patterns, and reward structures do not encourage behavioral changes of the kind required to achieve these results. Leadership at all levels, and critically, executive management is required.

The author thanks Rosa Akhtarkhavari, City of Orlando CIO, for her encouragement and thoughtful review comments.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT

The author thanks Rosa Akhtarkhavari, City of Orlando CIO, for her encouragement and thoughtful review comments.

 

Author Information

David Gancarz, P.E., is the IT Systems Development Manager at the City of Orlando, Orlando, FL. Email: david.gancarz@cityoforlando.net.

 

Read full article, including references, here.