The Information Society

Rethinking Government


WWW pages of governments


The changes which the use of information technology have brought about in commercial organisation raise questions about how government might change.

In the USA Vice President Al Gore has been a leader in this debate, having spoken of the use of IT in re-inventing government and related its use to the Data Superhighway or Infobahn. There has been much discussion of electronic versions of community meetings, putting politicians back into close contact with their constituents. An alternative view to consultation is the use of the Infobahn for intensive lobbying to pursue the views of particular interest groups. Taking a more extreme view, some right wing politicians, have begun to ask questions about whether we need government at all.

Such challenges need to be answered, even if the result is little different from the status quo. Key questions include:

In the USA the debate is very different from the UK, since the passing of the Freedom of Information Act which opened up many, if not all, government documents to public inspection.

Such is the importance of open government to the people of Sweden that a declaration on the public right of access to government papers was attached to their Treaty of Accession to the European Union. Swedes will have access to the briefing papers for officials and ministers for meetings and deliberations on European Union policies. Government at all levels in Sweden (national, regional and municipal) is obliged to keep a register of documents which citizens can peruse and from which they can select documents to see, without delay; the best known case being correspondence to the prime minister. The rationale is fairness, the benefit being an almost total lack of corruption in government.

The exclusions to the right of access include:

Despite this last exclusion, it is possible to examine the tax records of individual citizens.


Much of the debate in the United Kingdom concerning the European Union revolves around the concept of sovereignty. Yet in a world of enormous trading blocks like the European Union and the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA), with vast global corporations and well-informed financial and stock markets, what real sovereignty does a country have?

One of the principles of the Maastricht Treaty which created the European Union was ‘subsidiarity’. This meant the devolution of decision making to the lowest practicable level, including levels below that of Westminster-Whitehall, such as the German Länder and municipalities. Information technology changes the possibilities of the ‘practical’, making possible new methods of consultation and operation. In particular, it cuts out much of the need for bureaucracy.

One very specific area where IT affects sovereignty is through satellites. While spy satellites are well-known, remote sensing images are also important, offering remarkably detailed images of every location on the planet. These are available from Satellite Pour l’Observation de la Terre (SPOT Image), a commercial system based in France offering images on a commercial basis to any customer. Access to satellite images has a clear strategic importance:

The timing in delivery of an image is a key issue in the nondiscriminatory access policy, especially for governments using these images for ntelligence and other military purposes. A country with a Landsat or SPOT ground station—like India or South Africa—can get its images, including the images of neighboring states, almost instantaneously. In contrast, a rival state that lacks a ground station may have to wait weeks for images of the ground station country to be sent out from EOSAT or SPOT headquarters. What’s more, in targetting the SPOT satellite, SPOT Image is starting to give preference to its larger customers, which can spell big delays for disfavored clients. With this discretionary power, SPOT Image could all too easily begin giving preference to foreign governments on political grounds.
[Leonard Spector, in Lodge (1990), page 107.]
Access to information requires money, equipment and skills; in the extreme case the capability to launch satellites. Timing of access to information is vital, which can be an issue of access or of analysis. Satellite images can be used by one state to monitor the military preparedness of neighbouring countries. Images can also be used by multinational corporations to assess natural resources before negotiating with the sovereign state in whose territory the resources lie. Better or faster analyses give one party the upper hand, even if only in the short term.

Direct diplomacy

The aircraft made possible travel for the leaders of countries in a way which was difficult in the age of the steamship and the railway. An early example of this was when Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich. The era of summit conferences began in 1961 in the Bahamas when Mr Macmillan met President Kennedy. Since then such conferences have become mundane and, perhaps, too frequent. Dr Kissinger, the US Secretary of State, began the practice of ‘shuttle diplomacy’ and the use of ‘back channels’ to by-pass the diplomats. The famous ‘hotline’ linked Washington DC to Moscow operated throughout the Cold War turns out to have been technologically disappointingly, since it was a very slow telex link operating at only 75 characters per minute. It was upgraded in the 1980s.

The views of politicians are reported instantly by Reuters and CNN around the globe. There is no longer the same need for briefings from the local embassies as there once was, ministers and their advisors can do much of the analysis at home without recourse to embassies and often have not time for more extensive consultations. The era of George Nathaniel Curzon, Marquis and Viceroy, is now long gone. Viceroys and ambassadors plenipotentiary are no longer required. Video-conferencing can be set up at a few moments notice and the parties themselves can meet in a few hours.

Even when playing golf, President George Bush remained US Commander-in-Chief not only in name but also in reality. Someone was on hand with the equipment to trigger the launching of the nuclear strike force. Moreover, during Desert Shield and Desert Storm he could be consulted at a few seconds notice. The commander in the field is now closely watched by his masters in a way unknown to Gordon, Kitchener, Moore or Wolfe.


One danger of this electronic world is of immediacy; politicians caught on the doorstep on the way out of a formal dinner or after breakfast: “What is your reaction to this event, Mr President (or Prime Minister)”. This gives little or no time to think and no opportunity to check the facts. Pressed for an answer, ministers make off-the-cuff remarks which are then broadcast around the globe as the definitive position of the government concerned.

One result of the ready availability of television coverage of the Gulf War was that the war existed on two levels, as fought in Kuwait and as seen at home on television. The danger of television coverage is that it can sanitise and romanticise war, processes often necessary to make acceptable its horrible realities. Television pictures are seen not merely as representations of war but in a context of other visual images, from films portraying and usually glorifying war and violence, created by John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and even Arnold Schwarznegger and Bugs Bunny.

Significant dangers in time of war are of censorship and manipulation. On the one hand, television crews may wish to transmit images which are of advantage to the opposing side. While on the other hand, there may be a temptation to censor images of the horror and carnage of war. For the media, war is a major undertaking in which they spend large sums of money and can win plaudits. CNN was a ‘winner’ in the Gulf War, broadcasting continuous television coverage from the US bases in Saudi Arabia and for a considerable part of the war from a hotel in Baghdad, showing a city under aerial bombardment. Through the use of these satellite transmissions the Gulf War was the most public conflict of all time, more so even than the Falklands War. The certainty that the enemy were watching created the opportunity for the military to feed information selectively to broadcasters. For example, prior to the commencement of hostilities great play was made of the presence of the US Marines and the possibilities of an amphibious offensive; when the battle finally began it was through a massive and classic overland offensive.

A fear for the military is that of unrealistic expectations amongst their civilian population. It takes relatively few fatalities for the civilian population to rise up against continued war. A high-tech image can suggest a measure of precision and accuracy which is simply not yet feasible. Cruise missiles did hit the wrong targets, which is not very surprising given the technology and the circumstances in which they operated, but when they hit schools or hospitals it was extremely difficult to explain and the explanation did not have immediacy of the pictures, especially when delivered in televised press conferences in the peculiar terminology of the US military, with its talk of ‘collateral damage’ and ‘friendly fire.’ The Vietnam War was seen by the US military to have been undermined if not lost by television coverage. This was in marked contrast to the First World War where horrific losses were sustained by an apparently compliant population.

Electronic democracy

Citizens live in an increasingly electronic world, surrounded by and perceiving the world by electronic means. Yet in some respects governments still operate in the manner of the eighteenth century with all-night sittings, whips and order papers waved over the heads of MPs; making few concessions to the twentieth century.

It is difficult to believe that the average citizen or the majority of citizens understand the complex structures of multi-layer government, bureaucracy, QUANGOs and NGOs. Some recent survey evidence suggsted that few people in the UK even understand the full extent of their taxes.

The “Infobahn” has the potential to allow citizens to access government documents such as:

Thus it becomes easier for citizens to influence decision-making, through representation at an appropriate moment. Yet, clearly such access is confined to an electronic elite, for the present.

Some governments are already using the Internet, for example:

Her Majesty’s Treasury joined the World Wide Web a few days before the budget of 28th November 1994 in order to get the maximum value from the timing of its announcement.

It is not difficult to imagine a system of electronic referendums which might take the view of the nation on topics such as taxes and hanging. The alleged danger is of dominance of a philistine, blood-thirsty majority restoring capital and corporal punishment, cutting subsidies for the arts and so on.

We have already seen significant coverage of the US courts on television. The dangers of trial by media are all too evident. The live coverage of the pursuit of O J Simpson and assessments of the evidence on television make it difficult to belive that a fair trial, in the traditional sense, is possible.


Business Week.

Wriston, Walter (1992) “The Twilight of Sovereignty” Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.

Nora, Simon and Minc, Alain (1978) “L’informatisation de la société” La Documentation Française, Paris (English edition 1980, MIT Press, Boston).

Hennessy, Peter (1986) “Cabinet” Basil Blackwell, Oxford.