Digital monitoring and public administrative reform in China JESPER SCHLÆGER
Information and communication technology (ICT) has increased the monitoring capacity of the Chinese state thereby facilitating performance management in public administration. Even so, the consequences of ICT adoption in terms of power redistribution and control within the politico-administrative system are unclear. The existing literature has contradictory theories of the dynamics that are a consequence of the implementation of new information systems. A number of interpretations argue that citizen empowerment and pluralization of society are taking place, which may be precursors of a process of democratization or steps towards good governance (Damm and Thomas 2006; Zheng 2007). Nevertheless, others point out that the regime has been successful in using the new media to its own benefit to increase control and monitoring capacity (Kalathil and Boas 2003; Seifert and Chung 2009). Studies with a particular focus on ICT in the public administration converge on arguments that ICT leads to reinforcement of the existing power structures (Kluver 2005; Seifert and Chung 2009). It raises the question of whether the central government can use ICT to support organizational reforms to attain better control of local governments and thereby promote good governance (Lagerkvist 2005; Zhang 2005). A technological determinist position would argue that the inherent character of technology will decide the new organizational form (Song and Cornford 2006) whereas a constructivist position, on the contrary, would focus on how powerful actors are able to shape technology to suit their interests (Bijker 1995). Whereas these positions exist, the majority of studies of the use of ICT in public administration (e-government) argue for a middle way (Agre 2002; Danziger and Andersen 2002; Yildiz 2007). It depends upon the ‘affordances’ of the particular technology in a particular context of ideas and institutions (Agre 2002; Hansen and Hoff 2006; Schlæger 2010). This chapter takes as its point of departure this last position. Consequently, it will focus on exploring through which mechanisms the new technologies affect processes of administrative reforms. The problem addressed in this paper is: how does digital monitoring affect government capacity to implement public administrative reforms? Digital monitoring can be understood as a means to address the information asymmetry that
exists in principal-agent relations within the state. The purpose of this paper is to trace the mechanisms that drive processes of technology-mediated organizational reform. This is done in order to explore regularities in the way digital monitoring influences organizational behaviour through changes in principal-agent relations. Underlying this is the question whether the party-state is able to increase transparency, efficiency and effectiveness and reduce corruption within the bureaucracy. Such improvements could lead to better governance and over the longer term could legitimize the regime as the government shows its ability to deliver what people need from the state (see, e.g. Shue 2010). The question is answered through an exploratory case study which traces the processes of two instances of ICT adoption in Chengdu. The study is based on 21 qualitative interviews, participant observation, and documentary sources collected during a half-year of fieldwork. The logic behind choosing Chengdu instead of more developed cities such as Shenzhen, Shanghai or Beijing is that the impact of ICT will most likely be more visible. The level of informatization is lower in Chengdu and hence changes are easier to observe. The first case of government affairs service centres is the most likely place to see an effect of digital monitoring as administrative approval takes places in a stationary office setting. Furthermore, the development of service centres is the result of an explicit government goal of organizational reform. Hence, it presents a most likely case of organizational changes enabled by digital monitoring in an area of China where changes would be easy to spot. The second case of urban management probes further into the individual level to find the limits of digital monitoring. It is a particularly useful heuristic case, because government has explicit focus on organizational reform. So, the purpose of the second case is to explore the limits to attaining total digital monitoring. The cases are intended to empirically develop the medium-range concepts of ‘virtual panopticon’ and ‘battering ram’ that can help explain the role of digital monitoring in processes of public administrative reforms. New digital ICT such as networked computing and mobile telephony afford new ways of monitoring and can therefore potentially lead to changes in organized practices and new rules of the game. In the case study such institutional changes will be traced on two levels; first, the individual level concerning how and why employees change behaviour when carrying out their work; and second, at the organizational level regarding how and why relations between organizations in terms of tasks and authority change. To guide the analysis a key concept is linked to each level. On the individual level, the analysis identifies the presence of a virtual panopticon. A virtual panopticon is when a superior government authority applies a range of ICT including automated surveillance to comprehensively monitor the level of compliance of lower-level government employees. The virtual panopticon takes to the extreme what Bentham did with his panoptic prison where centrally placed guards could monitor all the inmates yet remain unseen (Bentham 1995). The difference between the original idea and the one characterizing the virtual panopticon is that of automated surveillance. It makes the panopticon even more
pervasive. In the classic panopticon, the point is to create a prison where inmates self-regulate because there is a risk that they will be caught they if transgress (Foucault 1977). Additionally, in the virtual panopticon the surveillance is automated and hence constant, so any unsanctioned behaviour will definitely be revealed. The virtual panopticon is in many ways similar to the ‘electronic panopticon’ of call-centres (Bain and Taylor 2000). In the debate about implications of electronic panopticon, the focus has been on strategies of autonomy: how employees avoid being constrained. Such strategies can be individual or collective. It has been argued that the monitoring can lead to worker organization, e.g. in the form of labour unions. In a Chinese public-administration context this is not feasible under the present conditions where the state opposes all non-state political organizations. Consequently, this leaves individual-level shirking as the main focus for analytical attention in the following. In particular, analysis must address if the virtual panopticon turns street-level bureaucrats with considerable discretionary power into screen-level bureaucrats with no or very limited power to make independent decisions (Bovens and Zouridis 2002). This could be expected to happen as a consequence of digitally mediated regulation and standardization of the work process. On the organizational level, the battering ram is used as the key concept. This is when a government authority uses ICT-based data to induce institutional change in other agencies by problematizing non-compliance with ‘objective’ criteria, e.g. performance indicators. This mechanism has been hypothesized to potentially lead to organizational changes in the Chinese administration (see, e.g. Lagerkvist 2005). If this is the case it would be a very important tool in the Chinese government’s attempts to implement administrative reforms. The following sections first provide a short background on informatization in Chengdu and introduce a shared ICT system. Then, government affairs service centres and digital urban management reform processes are analysed to assess to what extent the virtual panopticon and the battering ram mechanisms are present in the cases and with what outcomes. Finally, the processes are compared and the implications of the findings are discussed.