E-government: who controls the controllers?

Giovanni Navarria
9 February 2006

Since 11 September 2001, western states have started a complex process of technological restyling of their systems of control and crime prevention. It's a process that exploits advanced information technologies with the aim of protecting citizens' lives and state sovereignty from worldwide threats such as terrorism. The hidden and dangerous implications of this process for these citizens' civil rights have largely gone unnoticed – or, when noticed, have been considered as a small prize to pay for the notional "safety" the process brings. Citing a common, popular phrase, some critics have rightly pointed out that, naively and rather wrongly, people tend to conclude: "if you are neither a terrorist nor a criminal, you have nothing to worry about".

Big Brother's rehearsal?

A recent scandal reported by the British media about the preservation of DNA records of unconvicted minors has shaken such complacency in one large western democracy. Britain is at the forefront of the use of DNA in crime prevention and population monitoring; it currently holds DNA samples of 3 million people (a number that will rise to 4.25 million by 2008); this represents 5.24% of the British population, far higher than the averages of 1.13% in the European Union and 0.5% in the United States. The government and police claim that the database has helped reduce crime has not silenced criticism from the media, political parties, and civil-society organisations, which escalated in December 2005 when the conservative member of parliament Grant Shapps revealed that the database held 24,000 DNA person profiles of young people under the age of 18 who had never been charged or cautioned for any offence.

The controversy over the DNA database is only one example of the increasing complex bond that ties the state, technology and the citizen in modern, "wired" societies. It is no surprise that in such exercises of information-gathering and information-retention, some commentator see the dark shadow of a developing and sinister "Big-Brother state”.

For example, Will Davies, senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research, wrote an article in openDemocracy which highlighted some side-effects of the "war on terror": "we may now be settling down into a surveillance society where privacy is at best conditional, and contingency is monitored and dealt with". In the aftermath of the London bombings of July 2005, Davies drew attention to the risk that surveillance, tracking and pattern-spotting might "turn out to be the long-term role of digital networks in society".

Although there is some evidence in favour of this view, it tends rather myopically to focus mainly on the most obvious dangers of abuse of power posed by the "new dotcom boom in surveillance technologies" that the author anticipates . This line of argument is rather paradigmatic of the literature on the topic . Indeed, in my view, events like the DNA database scandal in Britain represent only the tip of a gigantic iceberg of power and control strategies hidden beneath the dense surface of our everyday life.

True, the policies of Britain or other well-established democracies cannot easily be compared to that of authoritarian states like China, which more openly try to exploit new technologies as a system of total social control and censorship. But the very presence of independent institutions and the hard work of civil-society organisations in such longstanding democracies means that control there must operate in a more subtle and invisible way. Thus, to understand the updated strategy of power in the age of networks and computers, it is necessary to look at the whole process from a different and wider perspective – one where Orwellian metaphors of "Big Brother" may be actively misleading.

To understand what is happening, a fresh mapping is needed, that begins with the recognition that the technological revolution of the last decade has spurred a radical transformation in the concepts and matrix of government and governance worldwide. The meaning of this radical transformation is encapsulated in a popular, highly debated, hyphenated word: e-government. That hyphen itself can be seen in one of two ways: positively, as the symbolic link between the past and the future of complex democratic institutions; or negatively, as the virtual mark of the invisible "long hand" of governmental power.

What is e-government?

Technically speaking, "e-government" or "electronic government" is the use of information technology's unique characteristics in matters of governance to enhance and provide a better, more sophisticated, fast and smooth, service delivery to citizens and businesses. But in the context of the durable neo-liberal tradition of technological determinism, e-government is perceived – even advertised – as a double opportunity for governments worldwide: to increase efficiency by drastically cutting the cost of bureaucracy, and as an invaluable tool to bridge the gap between citizens and the executive and legislative powers. In this perspective, e-democracy is a pillar of the ongoing process of reinventing and enhancing democracy in the 21st century through the difficult goal of re-establishing trust and dialogue between the state and the citizens.

This potential is emphasised by Pippa Norris of Harvard University, who argues that the marriage between information technology and government might eventually bring with it a rich dowry of "multiple (positive) consequences for different aspects of democracy"; for example, "strengthening transparency by publishing official information about regulations, policies and procedures…or…stimulating civic activism through public consultation or providing opportunities for citizens to cast an electronic ballot."

However, more than a decade of trials and errors has made it clear that the "passage from government to e-government" – from the familiar, old, unsatisfactory bureaucratic service-provider to the clean, new, perfect form of seamless government – cannot be reduced to a matter of numbers and statistics about computer-penetration rates and internet usage, or putting a website online and enabling an online tax-payment system. Rather, many e-government projects around the world share a commitment to the idea that e-government is a long-term project involving not just an extraordinary financial investment but the application of a strong political will and commitment (especially from political leaders) that can deal with the "disruptive change" that the process carries with it.

How does e-government happen? The transformation can be summarised using a five-stage model:

  • basic electronic commitment: rudimentary governmental websites with essential information and documents (description of its work, its duties and the services it offers)
  • increased online presence: more dynamic and functional websites with regularly updated news, contacts (few) and inter-agency weblinks easily available; forms and official documents or legislations can be downloaded and printed
  • interactive government: the agencies' websites boost their interaction with citizens providing extensive email contact list, tailored news feeds, specialised and customisable search engines and databases; forms and requests can be submitted online
  • transactional government: the website is a single entry portal, which functions as gateway to each and every government agency website; front and back office are fully linked, the intranet is the indispensable backbone for the government staff's daily working routine (yet, during this stage, agencies are not interoperational)
  • a virtual seamless government as the ultimate aim; all government's agencies and services, information, and transactions are available online and channelled through a single entry-point portal. At anytime and from anywhere in the network, citizens can log on and initiate a process of full interaction with the government as a whole. In this fifth stage, the government and its entire complex structure is "virtually" one click away. Through its new virtual gate, the intricate, hidden and often incomprehensible chaotic net that for citizens once stood for governmental bureaucracy, becomes order, and a synonym of accessibility.

The state of things

The number of countries or political regions worldwide initiating e-government projects has been steadily increasing. By 2001, 179 countries were involved in such projects at different levels, generating 14,484 government websites; by 2002 the first number had increased to 232, and the number of websites to 17,929.


E-government has moved to the centre of the political agendas of governments worldwide. In Britain, prime minister Tony Blair announced in 2000 that all government services delivered to citizens and businesses would be available electronically by the end of 2005, and that "(the) whole shape of our economy will be changed by this new technology, that's why UK Online is so vital".

Also in 2000, the European Union's Lisbon strategy promised to "make the European Union the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy with improved employment and social cohesion by 2010"; by 2002, the European Council meeting in Seville announced that within two more years all EU member-states' e-government projects should ensure interactive basic public services accessible to all citizens.

No administration has yet achieved the final stage of virtual government, but the figures support the view of many in the public and private sector that this radical transformation will reach its destination in the near future – and that when it happens, the relationship between government, citizens, and business will be greatly enhanced. As Helen Margetts of the Oxford Internet Institute says, this will allow the government not only to do "things that (it) has always done differently (but also to do) new things that it did not do before".

It may sound like a brave new world. But the concept of e-government does not signify only efficiency gains and economic benefits. It also underpins the changing, thickening relationship between government and power in the new era of integrated computer networks. More precisely, in an advanced technological society whose social structure is the result of the interaction among a complex web of networks constantly exchanging and processing data between their myriad of nodal points, the exercise of power and the relationships of power are radically changed.

From this perspective, once "virtual government" is fully operational, the result will be a more sophisticated political creature which could present a rooted, hidden threat to citizens' life and freedoms.

The impeccable service provider?

Behind this understanding of this potential threat lies an argument about the nature of power relations and state structures that has been continuing since the early 20th century. A strong influence in this argument is the work of the German sociologist, Max Weber. For Weber, domination in modern states is bureaucratic – that is to say (in the words of Hannah Arendt), domination rests upon the fact of being "the rule of an intricate system of bureaus in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called rule by Nobody".

Weber regarded administrative functions in modern states as organised according to a set of fixed principles: jurisdictional areas are regulated by "laws and administrative rules"; official duties and activities are "distributed in a fixed way" as it is the authority officials are given to "discharge duties"; officers' selection is based on skills and qualifications criteria required by the appointment. Bureaus are organised hierarchically from top to bottom. The office's administration and procedures are strictly regulated by "written documents ('the files'), which are preserved in their original or draft form. There is, therefore, a staff of subaltern officials and scribes of all sorts. The body of officials actively engaged in a public office, along with the respective apparatus of material implements and the files, make up a bureau.

The fifth and final stage of the path to e-government (virtual government) outlined above marks the passage from an organisational milieu based on the complex bureaucracy described by Weber to a new mechanism structured around a more flexible and automated virtuality. Within the technological framework of virtual bureaucracies, important decision are still taken at the top of the hierarchy, agencies still play a fundamental role in the management of a country, and jurisdictional areas are still strictly regulated; at the same time, however, coordination and interaction between agencies, allocation of duties, supervision and control mechanisms change radically.

For example, most of the duties concerned with control and monitoring, together with data-processing and cross-checking procedures, are automated and carried out in a faster and more reliable way; in the long term they may be instantaneous. The "files" are in electronic form, easy to transmit, share and maintain. Overall, information technology applied to governments' business improves officialdom by making the system faster and by diminishing significantly its inherited, embedded flaws. Nuisances such as slowness and bad quality of service, chaos and inefficiency, with which bureaucracy is often identified – at least from a user's perspective – are reduced to a minimum or completely overcome.

This aspect – nuisance reduction – is one of the most important features of the whole process of electronic reorganisation of government administration. Embedded within it is an element of openness and reliability, alongside another quality – not the secrecy and exclusion inherent in Weber's "ideal-typical" model of bureaucracy, but the government's desire to please its customers, to become an impeccable service-provider.

For an average citizen, dealing with an average government often means troubles. Paying a fine or renewing a driving licence can easily become an exasperating odyssey through a bureaucratic web made of an intricate multitude of disorganised agencies not communicating with each other. In the age of virtual government, such nuisance is set to become history, a laughable and primitive aspect of the past. This aspiration is embodied in the United States president's management agenda of July 2001, which presents the aim of the US's e-government project: "to make better use of information technology … eliminate billions of dollars of wasteful federal spending, reduce government's paperwork burden on citizens and businesses, and improve government response time to citizens – from weeks down to minutes. A key goal is for citizens to be able to access government services and information within three 'clicks' when using the Internet."

It is hard to imagine complaining about this kind of government; a government that satisfies its citizen's request within minutes sounds like a dream. But it represents only one side of the coin.

Who controls the controllers?

The passage from the old bureaucratic state to a new form of virtual government – a fully digitalised, flexible, truly reliable and accessible service provider – in principle creates a more friendly relationship between the government and its subjects. But it also allows governments, in a seemingly inoffensive way, to lay the foundations of a new, invisible mechanism of securing compliance. This is not necessarily the "hidden agenda" of governments worldwide working on the digitalisation of their businesses; but as Steven Lukes points out, "the exercise of power does not require being intelligent and intentional", and in my view the unexpected outcomes of the revolution that is occurring include the possibility of such a society of control.

To comprehend this new environment of invisible power, George Orwell's Big Brother allegory is inadequate, as it rests upon the notion of the visibility of the control mechanism. A far better guide is Michel Foucault's concept of governmentality.

Foucault uses the term governmentality to indicate the complex tactics, procedures and apparatuses that attempt to control and influence the conduct of individuals by using truth, knowledge, and political economy, rather than violence: in other words, the art of governing by fostering willing compliance in subjects, rather than achieving legitimacy through the help of brute force.

Governmentality is an invisible and stronger form of decentred power that induces people to comply with subjugation from within themselves. It suggests that compliance can become voluntary; individuals may believe themselves to be free and acting upon their will, whereas in reality they are responding to a series of inputs or guidelines coming from a governing power – that is, from one of the many institutions that form society as a whole: family, state, prison, school, health system.

In the high-tech society we increasingly inhabit, daily involvement with government is becoming increasingly technology-dependent; meanwhile, government – originally a feared Leviathan – is slowly reinventing itself as an apparently trusted servant whose only goal is to improve the quality of its customers' lives. While being offered unprecedented opportunities to choose from a wide array of impressive and new efficient digital government' services, citizens are becoming "governmentalised".

Citizens are learning to comply with the requests and the soft-diktats of the new environment, and – in the name of protection or in search of a better quality of life – giving up their right to privacy by allowing government to collect and retain data about every aspect of their lives. From their experience as consumers, they regard this as perfectly normal. As subjects always connected to the system, they become permanently surveyable and controllable: indeed, they become data shared on a computer's database that is always easily accessible and retrievable. In the words of Gilles Deleuze, their position and identity is always known.

In this new environment built on an impressive range of pervasive digital technologies – such as the internet, CCTV cameras, and relational databases – the government, in its entire complexity of multiple agencies, is granted extraordinary permission (that is, power). At any moment, it can ask any citizen: who are you? Where are you? What are you doing? Even more dangerously, it can already know the answers to those questions regardless of the citizen's readiness to share this information. In fact, citizens are too often unaware of the power-relations in which they have become enmeshed; they are complying subjects of a power that (Steven Lukes again) is indeed "at its most effective when is least observable".

The Italian political philosopher Norberto Bobbio, in his classical study The Future of Democracy, addresses the risks hidden beneath the surface of what he called a "computerocracy". "(The) ideal of the powerful has always been to see every gesture and to listen to every word of their subjects (if possible without being seen or heard)", Bobbio wrote; but nowadays, in the information age, the ideal is realised. Bobbio went on to argue that the old question running through the history of political thought ("who guards the guards?") can now be reformulated ("who controls the controllers?"). "(If) no adequate answer can be found to this question, democracy in the sense of visible government is lost."

It is far from my intention to advocate a romantic return to a pre-technological age in government's activities. That, in my view, is neither possible nor desirable. Yet, given the present and strong convergence between government and technological means of control, more than ever we should – at least – try not to forget Bobbio's warning.

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