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Translating Institutions

Translating Institutions. Interoperability of Governmental Information Systems as Redesign of the Modernist State

Annalisa Pelizza, Ph.D., Marie Curie Fellow,

Interoperability as a form of data exchange that is meant to cross organizational boundaries is reconfiguring governmental assemblages in ways previously unforeseeable with traditional eGovernment policies. Interoperability is designed within governmental networks – at different scales (e.g. between municipalities and ministries), or among different areas (e.g. cadastral and tax offices) – but also among public bodies and private or civil society actors (e.g. contracted companies exerting public functions).

What emerges from similar cases is that it is as a result of technical capabilities – and not of changes in the law or formal system at large – that shifts in functions among institutional branches and among the Public and the Private happen. Every-day evidence speaks for an unnoticed, technology-led relocation of formal roles in the public administration, and rearrangement of public/private equilibria.

New questions emerge, as a consequence. For instance, where does responsibility lie in case of misuse of data? On actors that “store” them, or on those who distribute them, or on those who “use” them? To what extent can we talk about “governmental accountability over data” when governmental databases are stored on a consulting company’s servers? Most importantly, how does this proliferation of intermediaries affect the contract between government and citizens?

A major transformation is taking place, and it is invisible and unnoticeable not only to citizens whose data are exchanged, but also to those same decision-makers and practitioners that do not fully realize the policy reach of their scattered micro-technical decisions. This reconfiguration of roles shows a gap between de facto practices and the degree of formalization required in governmental settings.

At the same time, this tension between the de facto and the formal generates a particularly rich evidence-base for developing questions about the deeper consequences of information system integration. The TRANSLATING INSTITUTIONS research recognizes that integration of administrative information flows is not just a matter of efficiency and technical functioning. It re-designs relations among actors: between governmental bodies at different scales, the Private and the Public, and ultimately between the Governed and the Governing.

Even more, TRANSLATING INSTITUTIONS recognizes that boundaries among governmental branches and between them and civil society are negotiated throughout processes of information system design and deployment. Analytical interest is therefore in how these institutional boundaries are either reinforced or weakened.

Overarching research questions: How does the coupling of bureaucratic and technical knowledge introduced by interoperability of governmental information systems function? Which actors emerge/disappear/get reconfigured at this intersection?

Method: Analysis of competing discursive strategies along three types of boundaries: the scalar one, the public/private one, and the knowledge-related one. Analysis concentrates on those data that since XVII century have been the monopoly of state power, like cadastral and civil data. Case-studies are located in NL and UK.

Expected results

1) The TI research argues that – far for simply linking information systems – processes of integration of information systems are optimal opportunities to observe micro-processes of denationalization. As a matter of fact, it investigates processes in which technology-making corresponds to government-dismantling: the introduction of new technologies triggers different hierarchies, novel subjects of authority and procedures of legitimacy.

Therefore, the TI research is expected to provide new insights to the scholarship on globalization, which analyses forms of authority emerging from the disassembling of the nation-state. Notably, the TI research provides evidence to those theories that see globalization as the outcome of specific micro-processes of denationalization taking place inside the state.

2) TI is also meant to suggest tools to assess interoperability policies. Public anxieties about governments’ degree of awareness of the vulnerabilities and risks are starting to be formulated, together with concerns about how the redesign of governmental information flows is de facto (and perhaps unwittingly) changing the relationship between citizens and governments.

Just think at how surveilling capabilities can be exponentially enhanced when datasets are crossed for goals that were unforeseeable at the moment data were gathered, like with Smart Cities or Open Data developments. In order for these technologies to be deployed in an efficient, reliable and transparent way, it is necessary to make explicit those assumptions that could lead not only to bad investments, but also to lower accountability.