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Computer Science - Database Management & Information Retrieval | Informing Digital Futures - Strategies for Citizen Engagement (Reviews)

Informing Digital Futures

Strategies for Citizen Engagement

Damodaran, Leela, Olphert, Wendy

2006, XVI, 226 p.

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From the reviews:

We can control space probes on immensely complex missions, we can successfully design weapon systems of huge complexity but we cannot seem to effectively address what would appear to be much simpler problems: a tax credits system for example. It seems that the computer systems which have the greatest impact on the day-to-day lives of people particularly where there are differing and often conflicting aspirations and expectations, have the greatest chance of failure. It was certainly my experience as an IT Director that, in large administrative systems, problems with the conflicting aims and desires of the many interested groups of people, the "stakeholders" in today’s jargon, were much harder to resolve and caused far more intractable problems than the sorting out the technical function of the system.

My life would have been so much easier had I had access to the guidance of this perceptive book and had been able to persuade my political masters to follow its recommendations!

How to ensure that the immense promise of digital technology is delivered and really does meet society’s needs efficiently and comprehensively? This is the huge challenge addressed by this important book which argues that while all our lives are increasingly affected by the advances in digital technology, many of the most promising and far reaching projects fall dramatically short of expectations. While setting out on a path paved with good intentions, all too often ICT systems turn out to run hugely over time and budget; end up over-complex and difficult to use; fail to address the aspirations or concerns of many; cannot be readily accessed by the elderly or those with disabilities or in other ways fail to deliver the expected benefits. Worse, in some cases they may actually impoverish rather than enrich the lives of some of the intended beneficiaries. The authors highlight the tax credit fiasco as a striking example of unintended and adverse consequences.

The authors point out that ICT advances are most commonly regarded purely as a technical challenge where the designers believe that systems analysis will of itself yield complete and comprehensive functional specifications. Developments tend to be driven by the need to meet the requirements of whoever pays for the system, and functionality is defined by those who believe they know what is good for us. As a consequence in ICT systems only very rarely is there systematic involvement of the citizen stakeholders. This approach contrasts starkly with that normally taken in social enterprises in community or political life where the systematic and active engagement of the citizen in planning and design is usual. The authors’ main assertion is that it will prove far more effective to treat systems as a socio-technical challenge and systematically involve stakeholders throughout analysis, specification, design and delivery. In support of this thesis the authors provide a rigorous analysis of previous studies of citizen engagement, reviewing many case histories covering a wide variety of sectors.

They argue that technologies succeed or fail according to their relevance and value to people, who therefore need to be actively engaged in order to create shared visions and influence the implementation of technological change. Their book sets out the ambitious aim of creating a culture of citizen engagement in the future design and development of advances in digital technology. It offers at the very least an opportunity to adopt processes which will help build a better, more relevant and more acceptable digital future.

The authors clearly recognise that to achieve such a goal demands a transformation in mindset not only on the part of those involved directly in ICT design but also those in positions of influence, such that citizen engagement in ICT development projects becomes as routine and accepted as it is in other aspects of civic society. Achieving this ambitious goal is made credible by proposing actions which have individually been successful in achieving significant change. The requisite knowledge, theory and methods to support a citizen centred, socio-technical approach already exist, as do mechanisms for high-level debate, discussion and action planning that lead to informed policy and legislation. These disparate components have yet to be brought together in an integrated strategy and applied to ICT systems: this is the challenge the authors offer to decision and policy makers in society.

The opening chapter sets the scene for socio-technical change based on earlier work by the Tavistock Institute and others that focuses on the interdependence of human and technical systems. It defines the attributes of a desirable digital future in social terms and spells out a set of base assumptions on which the structure of the arguments is based.

The authors then describe the current methods for designing digital futures and concludes that the separation of technical from socio-technical considerations" means that the design of digital technologies fails to benefit from the immense pool of creative talent, wide and varied knowledge and expertise of many of the stakeholders in our society – its citizens"

Chapters 3 and 4 make the case for citizen engagement distinguishing between mere involvement and active engagement in the process of design. They provide a number of interesting case studies of successful citizen engagement in the UK, USA, Denmark, Canada, Spain, Germany and other international projects.

There is then an important discussion on "Giving a voice to the ‘Hard to Hear’ the elderly, the deaf, otherwise disabled, ethnic minorities or other citizen groups with a valid interest in ICT developments but whose voice may not always be heard. Again the authors provide some valuable case studies.

The book then uses data from the wide range of documented experience to produce a model for effective citizen engagement and then discusses the very real barriers to citizen engagement embedded in current approaches to ICT design. They follow up by proposing strategies to shift the focus of ICT design practice with some practical proposals for tools and techniques.

The book concludes with a recognition that the real chance of success in the approach they advocate lies not merely in the recognition of the need for active citizen engagement nor in the proposals for tools and techniques but depends on a fundamental change in attitudes on the part of the IT profession and the Government sponsors of social ICT systems.

That the citizen should be engaged is easy to argue but exactly how and when and in what way is recognized as a much more difficult problem. The strength of this book lies in the fact that it addresses these issues by advancing practical, readily implemented guidance based on systematic research into good practice. It describes how to convince decision makers of the need to engage the citizen, how to set up a process of consultation to identify what needs to be done and how to establish a process of engagement in the design and development process.

It is a "must read" for government decision makers and administrators; ICT system designers, ICT suppliers and consultancy organizations. Based on sound academic research and extensive experience in the field this book also provides a valuable resource for both practitioners and research professionals. The challenge the authors set for leaders in government and in the ICT profession is to demonstrate the political will to adopt the policies and practices of citizen engagement, and hopefully stem the tide of failure and disappointment, so often a feature of socially directed ICT projects.

About the Reviewer: John Spackman is currently Chairman of Logan-Orviss International having previously held appointments as the Director of Operational Strategy in the Department of Health and social Security and Director of IT at BT.

September 2006

"‘The central theme of this book is that ICT design and development practices informed by citizens and enriched by principles drawn from several design approaches–especially a sociotechnical one–promise wide ranging and rich rewards for 21st century society.’ There is a how-to-approach in this book that readers will find refreshing. I recommend this book to designers." (Brad Reid, ACM Computing Reviews, Vol. 49 (4), April, 2008)

 

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