Policy bridges for the digital divide
First Monday

Policy bridges for the digital divide: Assessing the landscape and gauging the dimensions by Paul M.A. Baker



Abstract
Early evidence of economic and social change related to the diffusion of a number of information and communication technologies (ICTs) suggests that public sector actors face significant opportunities, as well as some unexpected barriers while “paving the information highway”. These technologies have generated significant changes in the nature, and operation of communication and delivery of services by the private sector increasing the impetus to accelerate adoption of these technologies in the public sector. While the advantages of accessing these services is well accepted, the benefits of the use of these technologies has been observed to occur in a distressingly uneven or patchy manner. This variation, which for the sake of simplicity has been described by extending the information superhighway metaphor as “gaps” or “divides” in the development of the “highway”. This paper suggests that a disservice is done in reducing the apparent inequities in the diffusion of the technologies to a simple socioeconomic concern. Rather than a one–dimensional “digital divide,” more accurately there is a policy problem related to the use and deployments of ICTs with multiple geographic, social, economic and organizational components.

Further, ICTs present policy–makers with an array of complex issues that extend beyond purely internal technological concerns. Rather than answering the question of how should public sector functions respond to the changes made possible by diffusion of ICTs, a more critical step seems to be to accurately gauge the nature of the issue rather than jump in and lay ”digital pavement”. This paper explores ramifications of the deployment of these technologies and suggests dimensions of the problem that merit further assessment.

Contents

Introduction: Framing the context of the digital divide
Surveying the landscape: Dimensions of divide
Public sector approaches
Assessment objectives
Conclusions

 


 

Introduction: Framing the context of the digital divide

Early evidence of economic and social change related to the diffusion of a number of information and communication technologies (ICTs) suggests that public sector actors face significant opportunities, as well as some unexpected barriers while “paving the information highway” [1]. While the advantages of accessing these services is well accepted, the benefits of the use of these technologies has been observed to occur in a distressingly uneven or patchy manner. This variation, which for the sake of simplicity has been described by extending the information superhighway metaphor as “gaps” or “divides” in the development of the “highway”. This paper suggests that a disservice is done in reducing the apparent inequities in the diffusion of the technologies to a simple socioeconomic concern. Rather than a one–dimensional “digital divide,” more accurately there is a policy problem related to the use and deployments of ICTS with multiple geographic, social, economic and organizational dimensions.

Given the recognition of the problem, a legitimate question might be raised as to the necessity of assessing its parameters. Federal, state, and philanthropic efforts are increasingly funding efforts to address the digital divide — the term commonly used to describe an individual’s or community’s lack of access to computers and online resources. Data from the U.S. Department of Commerce (1999a, 1999b) show that the digital divide currently breaks along many fault lines, including education, geography, race and income (GCATT, 2001). Access to computers and the Internet and the ability to effectively use information and communication technologies (ICTs) are becoming increasingly important for full participation in America’s economic, political, and social life. The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that in 2000, 60 percent of jobs will require skills with technology. As a result, the digital divide has effects that go to the heart of issues concerning economic participation and equality.

To further obscure the picture, ICTs present policy–makers with an array of complex issues that extend beyond purely technological concerns (such as the purpose and design of information systems) to the nature and extent of communication the institutional entity undertakes. Rather than answering the question of how should public sector functions respond to the changes made possible by diffusion of ICTs; a more critical effort seems to be to accurately gauge the nature of the issue rather than jump in and lay “digital pavement”.

 

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Surveying the landscape: Dimensions of divide

In some respects delineating the digital divide is akin to the story of the blind men and the elephants. Each of the “researchers” grabbed a different part of the elephant triumphantly declaring the nature of the elephant to be consistent with the part they had grabbed. At the peril of committing the same type of error, a reasonable approach might be to step back and take a walk around the problem to assess the dimensions involved. One framework for analysis, used recently in assessing the digital divide in Georgia (GCATT, 2001), considers the demand side (user/citizen) and the supply–side (provider/government). In this case, the digital divide can be conceptualized from a user standpoint as a suboptimal condition of

  • access to technologies (the initial conceptualization of the digital divide), oriented to hardware, networking and access to advanced IT/Telecom services;
  • content available, that is, what services and information can be accessed; and,
  • utility/awareness which relates to the actual value as well as the perceived value or awareness of the user/citizen/business of the use of ICTs and associated services.

From the supplier (or public sector side) the consideration alters slightly depending on what the generally accepted focus of the public service unit should be. Depending on the organizational/political culture of a governmental unit, use of ICTs might lean toward provision of services and transaction orientation. Alternatively, a differently oriented governmental unit might use ICTs as a communication channel focused toward increasing citizen participation, input into the policy–making process, and transparency in government. Of course various types of combinations exist in between [2].

More specifically, this leads to a key question for assessment, and system design. What is the objective of the system? Is it to provide communication (which can be one way, bi–directional, broadcast, or many to many — networked), information (say, access to library information, ordinance, tax filing information, city council minutes) services (online payment of taxes, telephone directories of officias, e–mail to officials, answers to question from citizens, feedback to officials, or economic development efforts).

One quite possible outcome of deployments of these technologies is that like-minded citizens will use the communication abilities of the networks to aggregate and focus political influence, a key rationale driving the effort to reduce the digital divide. Another could parallel the occurrence in the United States of significant outsourcing of public sector functions. It is not impossible to imagine a situation where a networked citizenry simply chooses to bypass the local public sector to tap into regional or even global resources for many of the functions performed by the public sector. To date a number of states have begun to implicate state–wide policies to begin to address some of the policy issues generated by ICT deployment [3].

 

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Public sector approaches

While there are any number of approaches to developing public sector ICTs, the two primary methods are top down (this is what we want to do/can do) and bottom up (this is what the users seem to want). This paper advocates the latter method as being an ultimately more effective approach both politically, as well as in terms of utility to the end user. Continuing a structural design perspective can be driven by the same component identifiable in the digital divide question — access, content, and utility.

Access could be said to be the manner in which the end user connects to the system, which could be through a home computer, through a public terminal say at a public library or through a secondary node such as a business (an access primarily for other purposes). This component takes into account a variety of methods to provide primary connectivity to the ICTs, reducing this barrier to access to information, services and communication with institutions and officials. Content can be considered to be the substance of the information or the organization of it, such as providing access to city council minutes, economic development information, or an online database of tax records. Alternatively it can take the form of venues for communication of input into the policy-making process for increased citizen participation. Utility/awareness, perhaps the most complex to address, concerns the desire of the user to participate, engage in the process, or simply, to even become cognizant of the potential and benefit of access to information.

 

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Assessment objectives

As mentioned previously, the design of any type of initiative to bride the digital divide, would ideally be a response to an assessment of the underlying access, content and awareness variables. All too frequently this aspect gets neglected in the rush to “get online.” Assessment tools to gather broad operational parameters include focus groups; solicitation of e–mail–based comments to policy–makers; in–person public listening sessions; and, survey of other governmental Web sites for “best practices.” Unfortunately these are generally more widely discussed than used. Yet they provide rich input into the development of ICT–based systems, and in turn, allow the effort to address the digital divide to be more tightly focused.

Looking at the “audience” or system user, and using a Web site as the delivery mode (though it might well be a telephone response system) we ask, who is the constituency that we are trying to reach? A simple yet useful model breaks this down into a four–way matrix, which can be envisioned on one axis as an internal/external orientation, and on another as a local/global orientation.

 

Figure 1: Communication matrix.
  Internal function External functions
Local Administrative (i.e., HR, budget)
Information (Procedure manual)
Transactions (i.e., Requests for leave)
Communications (Bulletins)
Example: Local agencies
Information (Procedures for licensing)
Transactions (i.e., Permits, taxes)
Communications (Bulletins, council agendas)
Example: Citizens, local businesses
Global Administrative (i.e., HR, budget)
Information (Interagency procedures )
Transactions (i.e., Requests for actions)
Communications (Bulletins/news)
State agencies
Information (Procedures for licensing)
Transactions (i.e., Permits, taxes)
Communications (Bulletins, council agendas, incentives)
Example: Out of state businesses

 

Respectively, examples might be: administrative personnel communicating with the human resources department (internal, local), or with other governmental non-local personnel, such as the state office of labor (internal global). In terms of external constituencies (non–governmental in this sense) examples might include local government interacting with local citizens or civic groups (external, local) and engaging in economic development efforts such as attracting outside business to the community (external, global).

In terms of targeting or developing digital divide related objectives, a jurisdiction might choose to emphasize a certain subset of the matrix. For example, a rural area might orient toward an external (potential new businesses) and global (outside of the community) focus as a way of generating new jobs. Here, the need might be to try to bring new business into the area. In this case the objective might be to communicate to outsiders the benefits the community offers. The difficult here lies in generating messages powerful enough that they can compete effectively with other efforts. Networked technologies represent one effective means of accomplishing this. However this falls more within developing content, than in developing overall system objectives, and is the subject of another paper.

Alternatively in an inner city area, an effort might be at extending architecture into the community via technology centers, public libraries or the school system. Here the focus is local, and external to the local government, yet one where the technological skills of the organization can be leveraged to address community/digital divide issues along the access/utility dimensions.

 

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Conclusions

While this paper has focused primarily on the practical and policy aspects of the use of networked information technologies by governments, it is important to at least note the risks that these technologies pose for the transformation of the public to the private. While this may be inevitable, it is our firm belief that there must be a public dialog about the issues raised by government adopting the market–driven practices of the private sector — many of which are not always consistent with the principles of an open democracy.

An example of the potential changes that may occur as an unintended consequence of government adopting or aggressively promoting the wide–scale use of networked information technologies relates directly to the disadvantaged. If the “market” becomes the dominant force driving either government services or the means by which such services are rendered, it may become cost–prohibitive for governments to serve the needs of all its citizens. If this happens, it is likely that those with means will rely on the private sector to meet their needs while those with limited resources may be able only to turn to government.

While delivery of services is useful, perhaps the most valuable effect of networked technologies is the potential it offers for policymaking, and hence, governance, in a distributed and participatory manner. While this has the potential of generating administrator anxiety over loss of “power,” a shift in conceptual thinking from governance as top–down to one of networked collaboration may alleviate some of the policy concerns connected with liability of information flows. Conversely, not anticipating the tremendous potential of these communication technologies may well result in the diminishing influence or even role of policy–makers, as the flow of “political will” shifts from official public sector governmental channels to less predictable “quasi–public” venues of political expression. Policy–makers can choose to support and learn to take advantage of these new channels of public participation, or risk reduction to ancillary actors in the new world of networked public sector governance (Baker and Ward, 2000; Baker, 2000).

“Correct approaches”, while possible in an ideal world can be approximated by thoughtful assessment and planning of any technologically related initiatives to bridge the digital divide. The desire of policy–makers to take action in the face of obvious social disconnects runs the risk of acting first and fixing later. This suggests an alternative is to “ask first” consider the benefits and the act. Assessment of fundamental dimensions of the digital divide can be effectively achieved by using standard “survey techniques” of baseline assessment, objective determination, and desires of the users in order to develop policy initiatives that more clearly target the limited resources and energies of government. End of article

 

About the author

Paul Manuel Aviles Baker is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor, and Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies at the School of Public Policy, Georgia Tech, and an Affiliate Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the School of Public Policy, George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia. He teaches courses in the areas of organizational leadership, public administration, information policy, state and local government, and research methodology. Baker is currently researching institutional issues involved in community information infrastructure development, municipal policymaking, and local government use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). Previously he was an Assistant Professor with the School of Public Policy, and held a joint faculty appointment with the Department of Public and International Affairs, George Mason University.

His research experience includes studies based on combined survey research, and qualitative (focus and nominal group) approaches for both private and public sectors clients. He completed a Ph.D. in Public Policy at George Mason University, and holds an M.P. in Urban Planning from the University of Virginia, and an M.A. in International Commerce and Policy from George Mason University. Paul Baker was recently National Secretary of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), and is currently a consultant to several community groups on the role of information technologies for community building and development. He is a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).
Web: http://mason.gmu.edu/~pbaker/pmbaker.html
E–mail: paul [dot] baker [at] pubpolicy [dot] gatech [dot] edu

 

Acknowledgements

This paper has been revised to incorporate the comments graciously offered by Andy Ward, J.W. Harrington, Pris Regan, Todd LaPorte and Chris Demchak.

 

Notes

1. An earlier version of this was presented at the Twenty-Seventh Annual Telecommunications Policy Research Conference. Alexandria, Virginia, 25-27 September 1999.

2. See Weare, et al. (1999) for an analysis of California municipal Web sites based on this orientation framework.

3. See for instance, the Digital Georgia Project at http://digitalgeorgia.org; Virginia’s policy at http://www.sotech.state.va.us/gcoit/gcoit.htm#about; Arizona at http://gita.state.az.us/sitplan99/index.htm; Texas at [http://www.state.tx.us/DIR/ssp95.html; or, a summary of state level policy at http://www.westgov.org/smart/policy.html

 

References

Paul Baker, 2000. “The role of community information in the virtual metropolis: The co–existence of the virtual and proximate terrains,” In: Michael Gurstein (editor). Community informatics: Enabling communities with information and communications technologies. Hershey, Pa.: Idea Group Publishing.

Paul Baker and A. Ward, 2000. “Community formation and dynamics in the virtual metropolis,” National Civic Review, volume 89, number 3, pp. 203–216. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/ncr.89303

Christine Bellamy and John A. Taylor, 1998. Governing in the information age. Bristol, Pa.: Open University Press.

William Dutton, 1999. Society on the line: Information politics in the digital age. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jonathan Gaw, 1999. “Government slow to get online — Internet: Although services like traffic ticket payment get rave reviews, they remain a rarity,” Los Angeles Times (26 August), and at http://www.latimes.com.

GCATT, 2001. DigitalGeorgia Atlanta: Georgia Center for Advanced Telecommunications Technology (GCATT), and at http://digitalgeorgia.org.

K. Kendall Guthrie and William H. Dutton, 1992. “The politics of citizen access technology: The development of public information utilities in four cities,” Policy Studies Journal, volume 20, number 4, pp. 574–597. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1541-0072.1992.tb00184.x

John O’Looney, 2000. Local government online: Putting the Internet to work. Washington D.C.: International City Management Association.

Rand Institute, 1995. The feasibility and societal implications of providing universal access to electronic mail (email) within the U.S. Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand Institute.

Roza Tsagarousianou, Damian Tambini, and Cathy Bryan, 1998. Cyberdemocracy: Technology, cities, And civic networks. London: Routledge.

U.S. Department of Commerce.1999a. The emerging digital economy II. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce.

U.S. Department of Commerce. 1999b. Falling through the Net: Defining the digital divide. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce.

Christopher Weare, Juliet A. Musso, and Matthew L. Hale, 1999. “Electronic democracy and the diffusion of municipal Web pages in California,” Administration & Society, volume 31, pp. 3–27. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/009539999400935475

 


Editorial history

Paper received 9 April 2001; accepted 20 April 2001.


Copyright © 2001, First Monday.

Copyright © 2001, Paul M.A. Baker.

Policy bridges for the digital divide: Assessing the landscape and gauging the dimensions
by Paul M.A. Baker
First Monday, Volume 6, Number 5 - 7 May 2001
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/860/769





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