Paper presented at the 4th Bielefeld European Colloquium, February 1998 Nick Moore, Acumen
The last few years have seen an unprecedented effort throughout the world to assemble policy frameworks that will enable countries to manage their transition into information-intensive societies. This activity is a direct response to the major changes that are being brought about by developments in information and communications technology.
This pursuit of information policy has taken place in large countries like the USA and Japan, in small countries like Singapore and Luxembourg; in developed countries like Australia and Sweden, and in developing countries like Thailand and Malaysia. It is a feature of capitalist regimes like Canada and Korea as well as socialist countries like China and Vietnam. All these countries have, during the last five years, tried to put in place sets of policies that have two broad purposes in common: to ensure that the country is able to take full advantage of the opportunities that are offered by technological change, while at the same time avoiding the undesirable consequences that might arise from the developments.
The approach adopted by different countries has also been remarkably consistent, usually involving three distinct stages. The first task is to investigate the problem: to assess the magnitude of the changes that are taking place, identifying the countrys weaknesses and the opportunities that might be opening up. Then it becomes possible to articulate a vision of the kind of society and economy to which the country can aspire. Here it is worth noting that in many countries the most senior politicians have been intimately involved in articulating the vision. The final stage is to identify the actions that will be required to achieve the vision.
While the approaches adopted have distinct similarities, the mechanisms used for developing the policy frameworks have differed. Some countries have carried out the task within the executive branch of government: examples are Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Norway in Europe and Japan and Singapore further afield. Here the work is carried out by inter-departmental groups of civil servants and ministers, often under the chairmanship of the prime minister.
Other countries have delegated the task to an advisory body of experts drawn from the different sectors that will be most affected by the changes. Sweden, Australia and Canada are good examples of this approach, with the report of the Canadian taskforce (Information Highway Advisory Council, 1995) possibly being the best example of a single document that defines the problem, articulates a vision and specifies a desired list of actions.
A third group have combined both of these approaches, drawing on the expertise of appointed advisory bodies but retaining responsibility for developing policy within the executive. This is the approach used by the European Union with the Bangemann Group (European Commission, 1994) and, more recently, the High Level Expert Group on the Information Society (European Commission, 1996a and European Commission, 1997 ) and the associated Information Society Forum (European Commission, 1996b). It is also the approach adopted in the USA with the Advisory Council on the National Information Infrastructure providing expert advice to the National Information Task Force (Advisory Council on the National Information Infrastructure, 1996).
We, in Britain, find the formal approach to policy formulation a little uncomfortable - a little too prescriptive and rigid. Instead we prefer a more evolutionary approach, one that involves the development of a range of strategies, actions and responses to specific issues that can be observed, evaluated and adapted in the light of changing requirements. The kind of pragmatic, rooted approach to policy development that Charles Lindblom elegantly described as the science of muddling through (Lindblom, 1968).
One consequence of this informal approach to policy is that it is not possible to point to a single document that describes what the British national information policy encompasses. Instead, we must consider a range of activities and aspirations across a fairly wide canvass. The question is how to identify what is going on? One tool that we can use in our trawl of policy actions is the information policy matrix that was drawn up to assist the European Commission develop its policy in the information content sector (Moore, 1993).
We can first identify three distinct levels of policy: industrial, organisational and social.
The industrial level is concerned with the information sector of the economy. Here the concern is to ensure that we have an information sector that can respond effectively to the growing demand for information within Britain and which can compete effectively in the rapidly expanding global market for information.
The information sector itself needs further definition. It is possible to divide the overall sector into three segments: content, delivery and processing. The information content segment is concerned with the creation, development and exploitation of intellectual property. Essentially, it is the production and publishing industry. The information delivery segment is concerned with the transmission of data and information and comprises the telecommunications and broadcasting industry. The information processing segment is concerned with hardware, software and computer services.
The organisational level of information policy is concerned with the use of information as a corporate resource within organisations in both the public and private sectors. In the private sector, information is widely perceived as offering the potential for raising levels of productivity and, more generally improving a firms competitive position. It can contribute in a number of ways. Automation can greatly reduce administration costs; better use of information can stimulate innovation and accelerate product development; market research and intelligence can enable firms to position and promote their products more effectively; and information about customer behaviour can be used to reduce risk, particularly in the financial services sector.
Information use can also make a significant contribution in the public sector, enabling organisations to reduce cost and improve quality and effectiveness.
The extent to which a nations corporate bodies improve efficiency and effectiveness determines, to a very great extent, the countrys overall level of international competitiveness.
At the social level we are concerned with the way in which people can use information to improve the quality of their daily lives. Some of the issues raised at this level are of national significance, such as the level of access to the information required to allow democratic processes to function effectively. Others are more individual, such as the labelling of food products so that people can select those that are best for their health.
Essentially, social information is needed so that individuals can exercise choice; can hold corporate bodies to account; can obtain the benefits that are due to them as members of society and, at the most fundamental level, can participate fully in democratic processes.
At each of these three levels it is possible to identify four cross-cutting elements that need to be considered: information technology, information markets, human resources and legislation and regulation.
Information technology is clearly pervasive. It underlies developments at all levels. Probably the most fundamental issue is concerned with the question of universal access to the technology, particularly telecommunications. Secondary questions concern the development of navigation tools and other software to enable us to make most effective use of the technology - is this an issue that should be left to the market or should the government be sponsoring research and development?
The concept of information markets implies more than the buying and selling of information. The policy issues are concerned with the broader question of the exchange of information: the interface between the provider and the consumer. Much information, it is true, is traded commercially - it is generally thought that the annual value of information traded this way within Europe is over 150 billion ECU - but even greater volumes are exchanged in circumstances where the information is free at the point of use. The information that is provided by libraries, citizens advice bureaux, government departments, hospitals and many other individuals and organisations provides an essential ingredient of organisational and social life and we require policies to ensure that this information system operates effectively.
People are a key factor in the development of an information society. Whether it is ensuring that the information industries have access to adequate numbers of appropriately trained individuals; or that managers are able to cope with the increased flows of information, or that individuals can properly interpret the latest batch of statistics about school examination results, the human factor will be a critical determinant of the success or failure of Britain as an information society.
Legislation and regulation
Legislation and regulation is needed to provide the formal structure within which an information society operates. In some cases we need to bring existing legislation up-to-date so that it accommodates changed circumstances. In others it is a question of developing new legislation to strengthen the move towards an information society. At the social level, it is possible to identify the emergence of intellectual rights as a fourth right of citizenship (Moore, 1998).
Increasingly legislative and regulatory questions have an international dimension.
Information policy matrix
By putting these levels and cross-cutting elements together it is possible to construct a matrix which can be used as a tool to analyse existing policies, to specify inconsistencies and conflicts and to identify gaps.
In this case, we can use it to identify the patchwork of policies and initiatives that, together, constitute the British information policy framework.
Here policy is concerned with developing and supporting the information sector of the national economy. Very broadly, the aim is to ensure that the sector can meet the demands for information that arise from other parts of the economy and that it can compete successfully in global markets, generating a balance of trade surplus.
The legacy of the Conservative government is such that we do not have a strong industrial development framework in Britain, having preferred to leave such matters to private capital and the market. We do, however, have certain strengths. The early privatisation of British Telecom, even though it was carried out for other reasons, has provided us with an efficient telecommunications system and a company that is able to compete successfully in world markets. In marked contrast, we have very little competitive strength in the hardware industries and we are almost wholly reliant on imports to meet our hardware requirements.
There has been also been relatively little support for the development of the information content industries. True, the BBC is regarded as one of the worlds leading television production companies, thanks largely to a tradition of public service broadcasting. But the success of our publishing and financial data companies is attributable to the ubiquity of the English language and the centrality of Londons financial markets and the international acumen of the publishing fraternity rather than to any official support.
Things are changing and we are likely to see a stronger industrial policy developing in the future. There are signs that the Department of Trade and Industry is becoming more active through its programme to support the communications and information industries (Department of Trade and Industry, 1998) and, it is to be hoped that support for the information sector will feature more significantly in the future.
Even now there are signs that the need for support is being acknowledged; the recent Green Paper on Crown Copyright (Office for Public Service, 1998) for example, refers to the desirability of relaxing crown copyright so that information and data might be made more readily available to the publishing industry for exploitation by them. There is also the work of the Library and Information Commission which, though it is primarily concerned with the public sector of the industry, has defined a national research strategy (Library and Information Commission, 1997b) and has set out a clear vision of what is required from libraries and information services in an information society (Library and Information Commission 1997c).
On the whole, however, there is relatively little that can be identified as policy to support the development of what is likely to become one of the most critical elements of our future industrial structure.
Here the aim is to encourage organisations in both the public and private sectors to become more information-intensive so that they use information as a resource to raise productivity levels, to improve quality and to meet consumer needs more effectively. In part, this involves encouraging greater use of information technology but it is really about supporting the use of information as a management resource.
The government has done more to support development at this level. The highest-profile activity has been the Information Society Initiative (Department of Trade and Industry, 1996a) launched by the previous government but continued by the present one. It is a programme with ambitious aims to stimulate the take-up of information and communications technology, particularly in small and medium-sized enterprises. While the aims are ambitious, the budget is not, representing only a tiny proportion of the total amount spent on information technology and the impact is, therefore, unlikely to be significant.
The Information Society Initiative is supported by a programme called IT for All (Department of Trade and Industry, 1996b). This aims to encourage the take-up of information technology by individuals and community groups.
In 1996 the government published a Green Paper setting out its plans to deliver government services electronically (Central Information Technology Unit, 1996). The consultation period has now closed and the government is laying the groundwork for a major process of service development which will have a significant impact on businesses and their dealings with the state Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology, 1998).
Programmes such as these, though, can only be a beginning. What is required is a change in organisational culture and this will take time and considerable effort to achieve.
As societies become more complex they become more reliant on information. People need to use information to make choices as consumers. Increasingly this applies to their consumption of public goods as public services like health and education are re-engineered to offer greater degrees of choice to consumers. People also need information about their rights and responsibilities so that they can claim their entitlements and play a full part in society. In addition, they need information as citizens in a democracy - information to enable democratic choices, as well as the information required to hold politicians and service providers to account.
The IT for All programme (Department of Trade and Industry, 1996b) seeks in part, to support this function within society. It aims to raise awareness of information technology applications particularly within community groups and in the voluntary sector.
The governments programme to develop electronic service delivery will also stimulate awareness of the role of information in social life and should go some way towards breaking down some of the barriers created by unfamiliarity with technology.
More recently the Library and Information Commission published a far- reaching plan to develop the public library service as an information network to meet a range of social information needs (Library and Information Commission 1997a). The report calls for a level of public investment that is unlikely to be forthcoming, but the vision that was articulated was important.
We also have in Britain a unique resource in the network of independent advice services like citizens advice bureaux. No other country has such a well-developed network of agencies that can meet social information needs. Local branches of the network are supported by local authorities, while the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux is grant-aided by the Department of Trade and Industry.
Again, however, we need to bring about a major cultural change in both the provision and use of information at the social level. And such change must be carried out effectively throughout society if we are avoid creating a class of people who are disenfranchised by their inability to make use of information.
Here the government seeks to achieve two goals: to create an effective technological infrastructure and to ensure that the technology is used to greatest effect.
Many commentators appear to be arguing that the infrastructural problems have largely been overcome. Despite reservations from some quarters, notably the House of Lords Select Committee (House of Lords, 1996), there appears to be little demand for government action to strengthen the infrastructure.
Hardware is readily available. Prices continue to drop steadily as capacity expands. Software is increasingly becoming regarded as a commodity that can be purchased cheaply off the shelf rather than produced expensively to meet the specific requirements of individual organisations. We might be concerned that few British companies are key players in these markets, but that concern is usually over-ridden by the ubiquity of cheap imports.
The telecommunications infrastructure is also fairly robust and capable of meeting most requirements. The privatisation of British Telecom and the encouragement of cable companies has done much to stimulate investment in the telecommunications infrastructure. There is likely to be a continuing demand for greater capacity but the existing providers seem likely to be able to respond appropriately without significant government intervention.
In the light of this situation, attention has shifted to the application of the technology. Here the Technology Foresight Panel has done much to create a climate of critical review and perceptive prediction (Office for Science and Technology, 1995). On a more practical level, the Information Society Initiative (Department of Trade and Industry, 1996a) and the IT for All programme (Department of Trade and Industry, 1996b) has sought to stimulate take-up of the technologies.
Changing the culture of information use and developing peoples capacity to use information is, arguably, the most important element in forging an information society. Here attention needs to be focused on the education and training systems.
At the primary and secondary levels, a considerable amount has been achieved through the work of agencies such as the National Council for Educational Technology (from April 1998 re-named as the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency), building on the early efforts to introduce computers into schools. Clearly, schools are still constrained financially. They do not have - and probably never will have - sufficient numbers of up-to-date computers and many schools, despite the best efforts of the Department for Education and Employment to develop Internet access (Department for Education and Employment, 1997b), many still cannot afford the cost of constant access to the Internet. But the basic provision exists and is being built upon.
The future efforts will focus on the development of information processing, as distinct from IT, skills. Here there are signs that the national curriculum has been modified to support the development of information handling, evaluation and analysis skills (see, for example Department for Education and Employment, 1997c). We can be reasonably confident that future generations will emerge from the school system at ease with information technology and with a basic understanding of information processing.
Similarly, great progress has been made at the tertiary level. The Follett Report (Joint Funding Council, 1993) has stimulated a far-reaching programme to support the creation of digital libraries, as a result of which, universities and colleges of higher education have greatly improved their capacity to handle digital information. Similarly the Dearing Report (Department for Education and Employment, 1997a) emphasised the need to develop high-level information processing skills.
There is, however, a continuing need to address those who have already left school and college. There is a widespread recognition, articulated well by the European Commissions High Level Group of Experts (European Commission, 1997), that an information society must also be a learning society. To this end it is encouraging to see large-scale development projects like the Education Departments superhighways initiative (Department for Education and Employment, 1997b), to be followed by the National Grid for Learning (Department for Education and Employment, 1997d) which is designed to link up all schools and other education establishment and to provide access to people undertaking continuing education. These initiatives with others outside the formal system, such as the University for Industry (University for Industry, 1998) which will do much to provide the continuing education and retraining services that will be required in the future.
The take-up of services such as these will be stimulated by programmes emanating from the governments plans to develop the National Lottery (Department of Culture Media and Sport, 1997). The proposal is to develop two new sources of funds that can support the development of human resources in an information society. The New Opportunities Fund will provide substantial sums of money to fund information technology training for librarians and teachers, while the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts is intended to stimulate employment and training in the creative industries.
We have, therefore, a good start with the formal education system and strong signs that the non-formal sector is expanding its capacity to cope with future demand.
The aim is to have an information market that is fair; that avoids domination by one or two key players; that supports entrepreneurialism; that encourages new entrants and that operates in the consumer interest. The record here in the past has not been very good.
There are several examples where pressure exerted by key players in the market has resulted in changes to policies that were originally introduced to protect broad consumer interests. Probably the best example is the over-turning of resale price maintenance in the book market: a step that will favour the big publishers and booksellers at the expense of the small and which will, quite probably, lead to reduced consumer choice. Similar examples can be found in the history of the exercise of monopolies and mergers legislation with respect to media ownership. The position on cross-media ownership in Britain is also one which would not be tolerated in many other countries.
In contrast, our record on the regulation of telecommunications and broadcasting industries is impressive. Our early privatisation of British Telecommunications meant that we had to learn quite quickly how to regulate the industry to stimulate competition and to encourage new entrants into the market while operating in the consumer interest. We may not have got it completely right but many of the lesson learned in Britain are now being applied in the opening telecommunications market in Europe. It is likely that our steps towards the convergence of regulators (OFTEL, 1998) will be similarly copied.
The Green Paper on copyright Office for Public Service, 1998) is an attempt to sort out the relationship between the holders of public information assets and the information industry and, as such, represents a step forward in resolving what many have seen as an impediment to the development of the information market.
The development of an information society calls for the creation of a framework of laws and regulations that will make the whole system function effectively. The information industry needs efficient intellectual property right legislation; organisations need to operate within clear data protection laws and, increasingly, will require a legal framework within which electronic commerce can operate. Individuals need a set of intellectual rights that will give effect to citizenship in an advanced information society.
Here there has been considerable activity in recent years, particularly since the change of government in May 1997.
Intellectual property rights law has been revised to accommodate the changing requirements imposed by technology (Statutory Instrument, 1997). There will be a need for continuous revision but much progress has been made.
Similarly, the Data Protection Act is under revision to take account of a changed technological environment (Home Office, 1997). The concept of data protection was first developed within the Council of Europe and that Councils Convention of Human Rights embodies a number of individual rights that will shape individual rights as the Convention is adopted by the government. Chief of these will be a right to privacy.
There have also been considerable changes in attitudes towards rights of access to official information. In the 1980s we were given rights of access to personal information held by health services and some branches of local government. We were also given rights of access to local government information generally. Now, in the late 1990s we can look forward to the introduction of legislation that will give us similar rights of access to information held by central government (Office for Public Service, 1997).
Together these newly-acquired rights constitute a fourth set of citizenship rights, which define the relationship between individuals and the state in an information society (Moore, 1998).
It is also likely that the forthcoming White Paper on better government will have much to say on the relationship between individuals and public services and on ways in which this relationship - essentially one of information exchange - can be improved in the future.
WHAT DOES IT ALL ADD UP TO?
The first thing that becomes apparent from this brief review of information policy development is that it represents a very British approach to policy making. We are far from having a wide-ranging vision which sets the tone for the subsequent coordinated development of a coherent policy framework. Rather, what we can observe is a fragmented set of policy responses to issues and problems. There is little coordination and little sense of overall direction. It is also hard to see how any single element fits into the overall picture or what impact it will have on other parts of the system.
There is also an enduring belief in the value of market forces in shaping the development of the British information society. One need look no further than the policies concerning broadcasting - we have probably the best public service broadcasting system in the world, yet market forces have been the driving force behind recent developments in broadcasting policy, with the result that the public service ethos is grave in danger of being lost.
There are, however, signs of change. The present government is less emotionally attached to the private sector and to the power of the market. There are also signs that the Cabinet Office is becoming more effective at coordinating the development and harmonisation of policy. We are also beginning to benefit from a more positive stance towards Europe. The European Commission has clearly given a high priority to the development of an information society and this is likely to feature more and more prominently in the development of the Union in the years to come. This will undoubtedly provide a stimulus for the continuing development of a framework of information policies in Britain.
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