The scholarly and practical needs for a center are both urgent and critically important. In the academy, social science research has so far neglected to confront fundamental changes in information processing and communication and their implications for central bodies of theory. As a consequence, a generation of graduate students are without adequate intellectual guidance and support thereby weakening the future research capacity in this domain. In the computer and information sciences, inadequate attention to the social properties and implications of design has resulted in an urgent need for such research as computing becomes ubiquitous and permeates government and governance. There is a vital need for closer connection between the dramatic changes taking place in American government enabled by the Internet and scientific research. Research and programs on e-commerce fail to adequately examine the unique characteristics and needs of government, the distinctive operation and purpose of its structures, and the sometimes subtle differences between the government’s use of information tools and their use in private sector firms.
The initial phase of digital government focused largely on putting information and services on the web for public access. These activities are rapidly being superceded by a deeper, structural transformation that affects organizational, institutional, and legal arrangements. These structural changes are by no means self-organizing nor driven by a technological logic or imperative. Information-based institutional change is rife with political conflict, bureaucratic inertia, the complexities of dealing with multiple interest groups and constituencies and the challenges of shared power in a distributed governmental system.
The fundamental implications of these activities for governance and democracy, the substantial cost to the public, and the path dependent nature of large-scale systems development point to the urgent need for a sound research agenda for digital government that will guide efforts for the next quarter century. It should integrate to the extent possible across technical and social as well as scholarly and practical approaches to these challenges. The center is meant to guide and catalyze these efforts by developing and undertaking a series of nationally visible activities that will move forward research and practical insights and frameworks. Although based at the School of Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the National Center’s research team actively reaches out to involve other well-known programs on technology and government, key government agencies, and other organizations playing a vital role in the digital government domain. Over a longer time period, we view the University of Massachusetts Amherst as a central node in a national network for research and practice fielding a range of collaborative research projects and workshops.
The central components of our approach include applied scholarly research on the design, use, and impacts of IT in and across government agencies; a doctoral fellows program; and an online network connecting practitioners, researchers and relevant information using innovative features as well as bringing together features and databases that are currently fragmented across many sites.
The goal of the center is the advancement of knowledge and practice through research, infrastructure, and community building. The effort is designed to build a deeper understanding of how social, technical, and policy research can better integrate scientific understanding with the design, implementation, diffusion and evaluation of information technologies used in digital government. Integration of disparate information into an improved, trusted, and useful whole is a fundamental challenge that must be met for societies to effectively manage, and benefit from, the emergence of digital government. Our research plans extend some of the dominant analytical frameworks in organizational behavior, political science, sociology, and computer engineering to examine fundamentally new information processing and communication capacity. Such an extension requires coordinating studies using multiple frameworks and topics and evaluating how different methods complement the shared search for knowledge, or even conflict in their assumptions. In this way, our objective is to advance fundamental knowledge in and across the fields of political science, organizational behavior, law, and sociology as well as in related areas such as technology policy studies. Our objective through these multiple infrastructure and network building efforts is to become the global research, policy, and intellectual center for digital government research and practice.
Building the Global Network of Digital Government Experts
The Center convenes leading researchers and practitioners to engage in deliberation and collaborative learning in workshops and executive sessions. The research team has extensive experience in running executive sessions, an approach refined at the School of Public Policy over the past two decades to build and deploy policy-relevant intellectual capital. The National Center will convene on a regular basis senior researchers and practitioners to pool perspectives, test assumptions, challenge orthodoxies, and synthesize new approaches to important challenges posed by digital government. Jane Fountain, the Director and Principal Investigator of the Center, has taught on digital government for the past eight years in several executive programs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and internationally, including the Senior Managers in Government program, which brings approximately 100 members of the Senior Executive Service, the highest ranking federal civil servants, to the Kennedy School for three weeks each summer.
An important element of our research strategy includes knowledge and innovation that result through dialogue in networks of researchers, fellows, and practitioners. The initial strategy is to extend outward from our current networks, which are already diverse, and to make strategic connections among them. We are not proposing to build a new network from scratch. Rather, we are filling what network theorists have referred to as “structural holes,” unexploited, strategically important connections across professional networks. Thus, results from developing and working at these boundaries will be important across multiple fields and of increasing importance over time.
National Science Foundation Pre-Doctoral Fellows in Digital Government
To help broaden attention to the social and governance dimensions of information technology and build the next generation of researchers trained in and sensitive to the unique problems of technological transformation in government, the National Center has inaugurated an NSF Digital Government Fellows Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Recruitment takes place through a major competition open to computer/information and social scientists as well as professional school doctoral students. We search both for fellows trained in computer science or engineering who seek more exposure to the policy and social uses of their training, as well as for fellows trained in the social sciences who seek a stronger technical grounding for their efforts. This is a unique aspect of the National Center. Based on our experience with other fellows programs on campus, we expect that a central benefit to the emergent digital government community will be that the Fellows will learn from and collaborate with one another and with the research team and its partners at a formative stage in their careers.
The Fellows are drawn from around the world through an open fellowship competition. The core research team collectively selects Fellows to come to the University of Massachusetts Amherst for a year to work with the Team in our research and outreach efforts. During each year, each Fellow writes a major paper on a particular relevant project of his or her own, plus a joint paper or papers with particular Team members for the explicit purpose of providing material for research and workshops and for dissemination through the National Center web portal. After their time at the university, the Fellows return to their home institutions where we endeavor to keep them engaged in the research and activities of the center for digital government.