Smart City governance is sharing challenges and goals with general electronic governance objectives, with specific focus on the governance of the urban public space. With typical application scenarios and research endeavours centring on mass-scale applicative contexts such as traffic management, urban planning, public transport, communal service provisioning, etc., crucial implications of political spaces are often marginalized and taken out of consideration in scientific and industrial research. As has been argued (Paulin 2015), ignoring political and jural implications can have severe adverse effects on the sustainability of technical artefacts, in terms of premature project failure, vendor lock-in situations, and the violation of democratic principles.
The density of population in urban spaces implies the need for laying special care on adhering to democratic principles in public domain governance in order to prevent unnecessary tensions from emerging. Core features of democratic spaces, such as transparency, participation, and collaborative decision-making need thus to be taken into consideration when planning and developing informated governance systems.
Using concepts as defined herein below, this section shall analyse the implications for governance informatability and search for atomic elements of governance, in order to respond to the first research question.
“Governance” is a term that bears significant ambiguity and has heterogeneous meaning in different contexts (Bevir 2009, pt. I). For sake of clarity, this term shall be used in the context of the present discussion to denote the set of all public-domain (i.e., nonmarket) social functions, including functions such as collaborative decision-making (e.g. the passing of a new law or policies), dispute resolution (the function of judges), and the empowerment and activities of authority (e.g. the many heterogeneous functions of the various levels of public administrations).
With this in mind, exploration of governance shall be limited to the analysis of its atomic elements and shall deliberately avoid discussing humanistic implications of such. Thus, the discussion is focused on how governance can be seen in strictly technical terms, rather than what it ought to be in order to meet expectations of various stakeholders.
This article shall follow the notion of the word “artefact” as used in the domain of design science information systems research, where it refers to “constructs (vocabulary and symbols), models (abstractions and representations), methods (algorithms and practices), and instantiations (implemented and prototype systems)” (Hevner et al. 2004). The artefact is thus a describable and isolatable component that can be described on its own and can be used as part of a system.
“Informating” shall be used to denote the action of modelling real-world artefacts into virtualized representations for their use in the domain of software systems. “Informating”, correspondingly, shall denote the ability of an artefact to be informated.
“Informating” has been used already by Zuboff (1988) and carried there a similar meaning. Informating something in this discussion does not stringently imply using such artefact in an automated context, nor using it for computation; the result of informating an artefact is rather making this artefact representable in the digital realm—the so informated something can, but needs not, later be used for computation, automation, or computerization. A scientific article obtained through the web is, in this context, an informated artefact, but has not been automated, nor computed, despite that the process of typing, storing, downloading, and rendering it on one’s screen heavily relied on and contained elements of both automation and computation.
Informating Governance: a Wicked Problem?
If a visual artist uses IT to craft its creations, he will use software tools, which aid him in creating informated art. This art, though rendered to the human observer in form of a picture, will in reality be a complex multidimensional set of informated strokes, their attributes, and instructions to the rendering system how to present them to the consuming presentation device. Latter might be the computer screen or the printing system, or any other consuming device that has been designed to handle the inputted set of informated entities without regard to whether or not it has been designed to adhere to their semantics as the human author of the informated art intended them to be. Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) images for example are such that they can be seen as pictures—static, interactive, or moving, or edited as text.
Ever since in human history, man-crafted visual arts have been all about arranging material (paint, pencil strokes, fibre, etc.) to form the intended result. IT however has enabled to informate the atomic elements from which art is composed and thus transformed this domain in an unprecedented way. Production- and service-oriented commercial activities have experienced revolutionary transformation due to informatization—speed, precision and cost was radically optimized, providing added value beyond what was possible till then.
If a banker transfers funds across the ocean, the informated credits are transferred as sets of informated numbers and their attributes, which together form a system representing instructions to achieve the effect intended. Unlike the above-outlined revolution of the various fields of production, informating credits and their transfer is a legacy from our past generations—think of bank checks, telegraphic transfer, and the age-old concept of currency as such. Nevertheless, modern ICTs equally brought an unprecedented boost to the evolution of credit transfer up till the point where global transfer systems enable new experiences in travel, commerce, etc.
Informatization has brought revolutionary transformative effects to nearly all aspects of human interaction in society, often eliminating the necessity for human action in processes of production, trade, entertainment, knowledge acquisition and dissemination, etc.…
…But what were the effects modern ICT had on governance? The introduction of ICTs in governance, Paulin (2015) argues, had no transforming effect on the domain, but rather contributed to strengthening existing patterns of conduct, leading to increasing overall cost of governance, while leaving the utility of state-delivered social functions at a stagnating level. Aside from the lack of perceivable optimization on the macro-level, looking closer at individual technologies, the approaches chosen for the construction of individual technical systems for governance have been found (ibid.) to be inappropriate due to the political nature of the domain, and the thus perpetually pending danger of unpredictable context change that renders solution-focused technical artefacts obsolete. Another consideration why systems for governance are constructed using inadequate approaches has been offered by Lenk (2012), who points at the differences between private-sector business process reengineering and the particularities of decision-making in the context of the public administration. In latter, he argues, “many decisions are made at the shop floor level every day”, while in former processes can be structured upfront, as such executed, and hence, automated.
In trade and manufacturing global technical platforms such as the SWIFT (intl. financial transfers) system, or global distribution systems like the Amadeus computer reservations system for travel ticket reservation gave rise to whole new economies. The business of providing social functions by means of governance, on the other hand, has no such infrastructure available around which it could centre its activities and from which new added value could emerge.
Focusing on public administration, which plays a major role in the governance domain as such, Lenk (ibid.) divides governance processes into three coarse categories:
Recurrent and well-structured processes (e.g. allocating kindergarten spaces or parking rights) which give little discretion to the involved;
Individualized decision making, which is determined by strong interaction between stakeholders, whereby the flow of interaction through the process is often not foreseeable in detail;
Negotiation processes, which are highly complex situations with no foreseeable structure.
Informating is feasible as long as the artefact one wants to informate can be abstracted in such way that its informated (virtualised) representation can cause real world effect. Such is possible with informated brush strokes, informated currency, informated airplane tickets, informated industrial parts, etc. In Lenk’s categories, artefacts from category “a” could easily be informated, was it not for Paulin’s (2015) sustainability concerns; artefacts from that category can further be, to some extent, automated, as is such the case in modern e-government systems that automate the processing of tax returns, car registration, and similar routine governance processes. Category “b”, due to lack of structure and foreseeability, cannot be automated, but could, to some extent, be informated, provided that the object of the decision-making process would be informatable, and stages of the process could be appropriately defined—the thus informated object would be transformed according to stages of maturity of the overall process. Same could be argued for artefacts from category “c”—if e.g. the object of negotiation would be an informatable entity, the outcome of the negotiation could be an informated artefact—such as e.g. a passed law, or a signed deal.
The prevailing view amongst digital government scholars is that the nuts and bolts of governance (predominantly: public administration) is the handling of information along processes—such is e.g. the premise of Lenk (2012), Scholl and Klischewski (2007), Yildiz (2007), to name but a few. Such premise per se is not incorrect; however, from a perspective of informatability, it renders the problem of governance informating into a wicked one.
Wicked problems, according to Rittel (West Churchman 1967), are such problems in science, which cannot be solved in their entirety. Science, thus, can merely “tame their growl”, or address a small part of them, rather than provide a clear explanation of their extent, or provide a solution. If governance informatization is attempted from the premise of governance being about handling information, the objective of governance informatization becomes the aim to informate the perpetually-transforming myriads of heterogeneous artefacts, which are handled by uncountable governance bureaus, institutions, and stakeholders of the system-of-systems that makes up the society. Taking the findings of Lenk (2012) and Paulin (2015) into consideration however, this objective would be rendered impossible to reach—governance informatization would thus become a dead end.
In Search of the Atoms
This paper defined governance as the provision of nonmarket social functions in the public domain. The set of modern governance agents whose objective is to provide social functions to lesser or larger parts of the society, is so vast and complex that a concise overview of its extent and formal inter-agent relations perhaps might not feasibly be established. Unlike pieces of visual art, at whose core lie brush strokes, which easily can be informated, or computer reservation systems whose core represent informated travel tickets and available seats, the core of governance agents is harder to determine. The question in the process of informating the core however remains the same: “what are the informatable artefacts that need to be controlled to determine the system’s outbound behaviour or representation?”
Thus, the question is not “what do we want a system to be”, but rather, “how do we want to control it”—the ultimate objective of informating an artefact lies in the optimization of its control, in its consequent adjustability and interactivity. The informated scientific article’s added value lies in its ability to be controlled in more powerful ways than its hand-typed legacy version was decades ago. The same is true for the informated credit transfer, informated airplane ticket, or the informated industrial plant. Likewise, the key to informating governance lies in its ability to be controlled in more powerful ways, and consequently optimized, rather than in the refactoring of its internal affairs.
In governance, the pro-forma content of the provided social functions is often of minor importance in comparison to the choice of individuals who deliver it. Downs (1967) for example argues that the survival of individual bureaus depends on being exempt from the public’s antipathy—hence, bureaus survive for being tolerated, not for being needed or wanted. Thus, provided social functions are born out of the possibility for their existence, which does not imply crucially a rational need.
Quality, cost, and other parameters of the individual functions of government are hence determined by the personal characteristics of human agents who provide them. Thus, it is the personal qualities of judges who determine the outbound performance of the court, the charisma and devotion of teachers is what determines the quality of a school’s output, the personal integrity and work ethic is what distinguishes a respectable public official from a corrupt and sluggish one, and the politician’s worldliness and experiences are what separates the statesman from the short-sighted bigwig.
Controlling behaviour of governance is thus a matter of empowering individuals (or bureaus/institutions, respectively) to assume the respective status of power on all levels of governance. Giving and taking away power, as well as regulating the flow of public resources to a particular governance body are the core-most levers to control and adjust the social functions provided by such.
Jellinek (1905) described the society as a system of subjective public rights. The core factor in this system is the jural status of the individual, which is a variable that defines the quality and extent of an individual’s relation towards the society. The result is the model of a system consisting of simple and concise, yet incredibly powerful atomic relations, which determine the jural eligibilities of the individual in the relation to the society as a whole.
A third pillar for understanding the atoms of governance is provided by Hohfeld’s theory of rights (Hohfeld 1920). Hohfeld’s treatise elaborates on four categories of jural relations between individuals—namely claims, liberties, authorities, and immunities.
Combining the theories of Jellinek, Hohfeld, and Downs, we can construct a generalized and timeless model of governance: Social functions which are the claimed objectives of Downs’ bureaus (e.g. the court’s objective to solve disputes), are provided by individuals whose jural status enables them to do so (e.g. judges whose status enables them to issue rulings), while their power (e.g. the relevance of a court’s rulings), entitlement to the social position (e.g. the judge being entitled to a title, public honour, and protection), and resources required to conduct them (e.g. the court’s budget as a share of the national budget), base on the constraints of Hohfeld’s jural rights.
More complex systems, such as hierarchies of checks-and-balances, collaborative decision-making, voting, etc., can then be modelled by means of atomic components provided by these three pillars. Such modelling does not conflict with other views (like, e.g. the view of the systems theory), as it is not focusing on the level of the concrete systems or their intrinsic processes, but purely on the factors that enable such systems on the atomic (i.e., not further dividable) level.
By informating these atomic components, optimization of governance by means of ICTs becomes hypothetically possible. The basic vision of e-governance research, i.e. the utilization of technology to make governance better, more transparent, more accountable, more participative, etc. can thus be approached by means of a lever composed of the power to control the jural status of individuals and bureaus entrusted with social function provision. The objective of governance informatization thus shifts away from researching technology that would hopefully make existing bureaus’ social functions ambiguously “better”, and focuses on designing an effective lever that would enable the control over latter. The premise thus becomes that control over social functions, their quality, necessity, and cost, could be established and informated, and that based on thus informated foundation, governance transformation could occur.