06 November 1998 - 07 November 1998

Governance in the Information Age

Chair: The Honorable Joseph S Nye Jr

Jointly organised by the Kennedy School of Government and the Ditchley Foundations

Ditchley’s first visit to Cambridge, Massachusetts, enjoying the generous hospitality of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, set us to appraise together the likely impact on political and governmental processes of the dramatic advances made in the technology of handling and disseminating information.  Our discussions tended to take the current Internet as the main exemplar;  but we reminded ourselves from time to time that further likely advances such as Internets of voice and visual links and interactive television would widen and indeed, in some judgements, strongly accelerate the change-forcing impact.

Would the impact amount unmistakably to revolution?  The diverse answers given perhaps reflected in some degree temperamental and semantic inclination.  We noted that, as in the first and second industrial revolutions, consequences would take time to come through (and often be hard to isolate and measure) and that the present journey was still at a relatively early stage.  The effects on patterns in the broad world of work, though already marked, had not yet generally transformed either productivity or process;  but organisational forms, for instance, were already shifting from hierarchy towards network.  It must be likely –  or so at least the more confident predictors among us judged – that the effects upon public governance would be far-reaching, though one or two agnostic voices wondered how far the nature of operations as distinct from their speed (granted that beyond a certain point shifts in speed could themselves be transforming) would be radically affected.  We acknowledged in any event that the impact of technology and the pace at which it altered past practice would stand to vary widely with the historical, political, constitutional and social culture in which it was applied.  Though United States technical and economic predominance would have powerful influence, it was by no means to be assumed that effects – and in particular the rate at which they emerged – would everywhere match US experience.

Doubt was expressed about whether Internet activity had yet played an important part in any major elections.  It was nevertheless to be expected, our discussion acknowledged, that there would almost everywhere be real shifts in political structures and methods.  Wider and swifter flows of information would put power, or at least influence, more readily into fresh and more numerous hands.  Just for example, small political parties would be largely freed from crippling costs for nationwide communication;  and political hegemony should be harder to seize and sustain.  But there could also be less benign repercussions, and the net balance-sheet overall was not predetermined.  In a pessimistic projection, we might emerge with thinner and more superficial democracies – with wholesale exploitation of and governmental reliance upon short-notice opinion-testing, hastier and poorer standards of deliberation on complex public issues, intensified demand for instant response, much greater primacy for marketing techniques, and general undermining of representative government.  An optimistic projection would look rather to a revival of trust in governance reflecting broader, more switched-on, better-informed and more powerful public involvement;  greater civic responsiveness through enhanced ease in alerting and organising the like-minded;  and an escape from the big-money tyranny of TV, media oligopoly and sound-bite political campaigning.

It was vigorously argued that one welcome consequence, already becoming apparent in some polities, was a reinvigoration of local-community awareness and action through faster communication and common-purpose mobilisation – the notable resurgence of local newspapers, made more economic by the new technology, was a supporting aspect of this.  Alongside this clear benefit, however, we agonised a good deal – too much, perhaps? – about risks that new technology would confer an excessive role upon plebiscitary contributions to public decision-making.  We recalled that the long-established concept of representative government had reflected not just the difficulty of constant access to every voter but also the need for democratic conclusions on complex issues to rest primarily, on the voter’s behalf, with individuals able to give extensive time to understanding complex issues. To circumvent Members of Parliament or Congress by relying overmuch on the consultative immediacy of instruments like the Internet could thus lower the quality of decision-making, especially if the effect were to allow disproportionate leverage to campaigning activists with leisure, skill and inclination to use the Internet as a megaphone.  But, said robust responders, such fears, besides underrating the long-term good sense of citizens, seemed to suppose that governments were incapable of devising or keeping reasonable rules and conventions about the value to be assigned, and the issues to be entrusted, to new mechanisms of this kind.

It was nevertheless evident that if, as most of us thought desirable as well as inevitable, the cumulative effect of the technology was to increase the empowerment of individual citizens, this implied added responsibility for them.  It was not yet clear that there would automatically be a matching general increase in interest in, or span of attention for, public affairs, or indeed in informed capacity to make sound trade-off judgements – for example about risk – on complicated and uncertain questions.  Concerns in this regard underscored the wide importance of relevant citizen education (and not just in the direct skills of using facilities like the Internet).

We wondered about effects across social groupings.  Would technology deepen existing have/have-not divides, or create new ones?  The costs of equipment should soon have fallen to levels at which they posed no special problems of affordability, and the skills demanded for their use should also be in principle easily imparted;  some categories of have-nots might be positively helped to escape disadvantage.  (Current generational disparities should pass with the years, no doubt – but might constant innovation always leave most older folk lagging?)  Attitude and motivation might however remain powerful differentiators;  and governments might have a particular duty not only to promote universal access (which markets on their own might not fully secure) but also to ensure that the elderly and the poor did not suffer de facto exclusion from, for example, the operation of electronic money networks.  That aside, we speculated inconclusively about wider social effects:  might Internet-style communication foster new groupings which, despite the welcome surmounting of existing barriers of time, space and cost, might lack the stability, loyalty, civility and sense of shared obligation that characterised good place-based community?  But we hoped that new groupings would supplement – indeed sometimes strengthen – rather than supplant established human associations.

Our brief review of governmental processes suggested that in most countries technology had as yet improved speed and accuracy rather than prompted radical re-engineering.  There were however wide opportunities potentially available, for example in the remote provision of public services and information on an interactive basis;  or the ability to vote when away from home;  or the routine conduct of local-government meetings without physical presence.  Such possibilities might prove eventually to have behavioural consequences reaching beyond what was immediately obvious.

We found few assured predictions about the governance effects of the new technology in the international dimension.  Geographical boundaries clearly became of reduced importance, and governance might in some respects be made more difficult, especially in relatively closed polities.  We did not all feel it necessary to lament problems in this latter regard;  but we acknowledged that for all states there would arise inescapable issues – for instance in respect of fair commerce, and of crime – requiring some measure of internationally-agreed regulation (as a May 1998 conference on the subject at Ditchley had observed).  Would the technology modify international relativities in power or wealth?  It was conceivable that it might – especially where educational levels were high – enable some developing states to accelerate their advance.

We noted a range of issues common in some measure to both the domestic and the international context.  For example, privacy – if to be defended at all – could not be preserved in purely national compartments;  and technology might put into the hands of government such unavoidable power to gain information about citizens that civil liberties might have to focus upon constraining use rather than acquisition.  Society might have to live with inevitabilities such as the near-impossibility of absolutely blocking – especially across national boundaries and cultural disparities – copious input from pornographers, conspiracy theorists, utopians, harassers, libellers, deliberate-outragers and the like;  even if ways of pinning accountability need not be despaired of, they would not be easily sustained.  It was commented, alongside this, that given the colossal volumes of material flow already manifest the key fulcrum of influence, both political and commercial, would prove to lie in the mediating and processing of data rather than in their amassing or dissemination.

We found it hard to distil neat messages from our survey.  Whether we perceived evolution or revolution, most of us saw net benefit in prospect, not least from the general healthiness of greater transparency in matters touching upon governance.  How large the benefit was, how brisk the pace of its realisation, how limited the “downside” effects, were matters not pre-ordained for any country.  Choices still available to be made by governments and societies (and open to being better informed by more systematic research and by wider experience-sharing) could make a big difference, given their timely recognition.

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman: The Honorable Joseph S Nye Jr

Dean, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University


Mr David Agnew
Executive Vice-President and Corporate Secretary, Credit Union Central of Ontario;  formerly Secretary of Cabinet, Ontario
The Honorable John C Crosbie PC QC
Counsel, Patterson Palmer Hunt Murphy;  formerly Minister of Justice, of Transport, for International Trade, for Fisheries
Mr Grant L Reuber OC FRSC
President, Canadian Ditchley Foundation;  Chairman, Canada Deposit Insurance Corporation;  formerly Deputy Minister of Finance
Dr David Zussman
President, Public Policy Forum;  Professor, Public Policy and Management, University of Ottawa

Professor Philippe Terneyre
Professor of Public Law, University of Pau

HE Dr Richard Grant
High Commissioner in London;  formerly Ambassador in Bonn

Professor Vernon Bogdanor CBE FBA
Professor of Government, Oxford University
Sir Nigel Broomfield KCMG
Formerly Ambassador in Bonn;  Director-designate, Ditchley Foundation
Lord Butler of Brockwell GCB CVO
Master, University College, Oxford;  lately Secretary of the Cabinet
Lord Gillmore of Thamesfield GCMG
Chairman of the Council of Management, Ditchley Foundation;  formerly Head of the Diplomatic Service
Professor Ian Hargreaves
Professor, Cardiff School of Journalism
Mr Perri 6
Director of Policy and Research, DEMOS (public-policy study group)
Lord Phillips of Sudbury OBE
Life Peer;  Lawyer, Bates, Wells and Braithwaite
Sir Michael Quinlan GCB
Director, Ditchley Foundation;  formerly Permanent Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence
Mr Ian Taylor MBE
Member of Parliament (Conservative);  formerly Minister for Science and Technology
Mr Paul Tyler CBE
Member of Parliament;  Liberal Democrat Chief Whip
Mr Gerry Wade
Partner, Bruce Naughton Wade;  formerly IBM
Mr David Walker
Editor and lead writer, “Analysis” page, The Guardian
Mr Robert M Worcester
Chairman, Market & Opinion Research International        

The Honorable John Brademas
President Emeritus, New York University;  President, American Ditchley Foundation;  formerly House Majority Whip (Democrat)
Professor Amitai Etzioni
Director, Center for Communitarian Policy Studies, George Washington University
Mr John Gage
Chief Scientist, Sun Microsystems
Ms Amy Harmon
Technology reporter, New York Times
Professor Deborah Hurley
Director, Harvard Information Infrastructure Project, Kennedy School of Government
Dr Elaine C Kamarck
Lecturer in Public Policy and Executive Director, Visions of Governance for the Twenty-First Century, Kennedy School of Government
Professor David King
Associate Professor of Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government
Mr George Newcombe
Litigation partner, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett
Professor Pippa Norris
Associate Director (Research), Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy;  Lecturer in Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government
Mr Andrew L Shapiro
Director, Aspen Institute Internet Policy Project
Mr Gregory C Simon
President and CEO, Simon Strategies;  formerly chief domestic policy adviser to Vice-President Gore
Mr Morley Winograd
Senior Policy Adviser and Director of the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, Office of the Vice President