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Roger Clarke's 'IS and Public Policy'

The IS Discipline and Public Policy

Notes preparatory to a Senior Scholars Forum
at ICIS 2015, December 2015, Fort Worth TX

Revision of 11 August 2015

Roger Clarke **

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Public policy is concerned with matters of national or regional significance, and involves the enunciation of objectives and principles, and the formulation of steps to achieve them, variously through legal and other regulatory measures, through the allocation of resources, and through the conception, articulation and implementation of programs of action. Objectives are generally expressed in social as well as economic terms, and their fulfilment depends on effective cooperation among many disparate organisations, often across all of the public, private and voluntary sectors.

Research that is intended to describe and explain public policy processes can apply many well-established social science techniques. On the other hand, research into public policy matters themselves is not well-served by 'pure research'. Nor is 'applied research' appropriate, because this begins with a tool and looks for things to apply the tool to, inevitably leading to the problem of 'when you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail'. The driver for research into a public policy matter is the perception of a problem of an economic, social and/or environmental nature. Such research is inherently normative in orientation, and it demands an instrumentalist mind-set, in order to devise possible solutions, evaluate them, articulate them, and implement them.

Data, information, and organisational processes that generate information from data are the lifeblood of public policy activities. The IS discipline is therefore well-positioned to make contributions. One reason is its focus on data, information and their management. Another is because it draws heavily on a variety of social science and business disciplines, and hence already embodies some of the multi-disciplinary thinking that is essential in the public policy arena.

In practice, however, the IS discipline is practised by the large majority of academics as though public policy were outside its scope. One factor has been the dominance of the system-sponsor perspective in IS research, with corporations commonly perceived as being the discipline's client. In Clarke (2015b), it is argued that, firstly, other perspectives need to be recognised, and secondly they need to be adopted when conducting some proportion of our research projects. Stakeholders other than corporations include categories of individuals, both as users and as 'usees' (i.e. those affected by an information system without themselves being users of it). In addition, recognition is needed of communities and societies based on geographical and cultural commonalities. Environmental and ecological perspectives also matter, at local, regional and global levels. To extend Lynda Applegate's example, we need to ask our students and ourselves not only 'Can Tesla disrupt the automotive industry?', but also 'What facets of the economy, society and the environment might Tesla disrupt?' and 'Who cares?', in the sense of 'What stakeholder categories are likely to be affected?'.

Another factor in the IS discipline's avoidance of public policy issues has been the perception that the science to which IS aspires deals only with descriptive, explanatory and predictive modes, excludes the normative, and deprecates instrumentalist research. During the last decade, design science has been bringing instrumentalism back into the disciplinary mainstream. However, design science still has a strong orientation towards the system-sponsor perspective, with other perspectives being perceived as constraints and all too often merely as impediments to adoption.

A further weakness in the IS discipline has been the slide away from 'information' and towards 'technology', as evidenced by the largely fruitless 'IT artefact' debate of the last decades. We need to recover our focus on 'information' and 'systems' as the core of the discipline. Technology is merely a means to the end of information systems that serve defined needs in an effective, efficient and adaptable manner. When we permit technology to drift into our core thinking, we slide into an acceptance of technological determinism, and we fail both to apply the available technologies appropriately and to demand technologies that fit human needs. Undue emphasis on technology undermines our capacity to achieve organisational fit and strategic alignment for system sponsors. It is even more problematical in the public policy space, where needs are framed much more openly, and much greater effort is invested in balancing the many, partly conflicting objectives of multiple stakeholders.

Treating information and systems as the core of the discipline is of course not meant to imply that our research can or should ignore IT. The current round of excitement includes 'big data', the Internet of Things and their corollaries of increasingly intensive 'datafication', digital business and digital users. Inanimate things are now expected to contain embedded chips. Animals increasingly do. Individuals are coming to be perceived as walking, talking data generators, and chipification has long since ceased to be the paranoid delusion that I was accused of portraying in Clarke (1994). A new phase of data expropriation and data exploitation is in train. Indeed, the question about how soon homo sapiens will lose out to its own creations, which has been mainstream in the arts for a century (Clarke 1993, 2005), is now being asked by thought-leading scientists (Cellan-Jones 2014).

If public policy is indeed a part of the IS discipline, it is necessary to consider what research techniques are applicable. Where the function being performed is evaluation of a policy or its implementation, available techniques range from some familiar to business faculty, such as business case construction, cost/benefit analysis and risk assessment, to others that have hitherto been held at arm's length by the discipline, such as technology assessment, privacy impact assessment, and the related forms of surveillance impact and social impact assessment.

Where, on the other hand, the purpose is to propose policy, articulate it, or implement it, there are few relevant techniques that are familiar to IS academics. Majchrzak & Markus (2014) provide general guidance for what they present as 'the policy research voyage'. An important part of the challenge, however, is to move beyond backward-looking empirical techniques, in order to gain understanding about the relevant future. In addition to fringe techniques such as Delphi rounds, new techniques are needed that are designed to cope with the normative as well as the explanatory, the social as well as the economic, and the future, the contingent and the rapidly-changing as well as the past and stable. Examples of techniques that attempt to unfold the future are instrumental futurism (Clarke 1997) and quasi-empirical scenario analysis (Clarke 2015a).

IS researchers claim to be observers of mighty revolutions, and at least to some extent contributors to them. The narrow, organisational perspective that we conventionally adopt, and an excessive emphasis on technology rather than systems, create an inadequate frame within which to define the discipline. We need to encompass research from additional perspectives, and some research projects need to expressly embody multiple perspectives. Public policy challenges our conventions, because it inherently involves normative propositions, is instrumentalist in its orientation, reflects the perspectives and needs of multiple stakeholders, depends not just on 'objective' empirical data derived from measurements of past phenomena but also on speculative data about as-yet-unobservable, or observable but unstable phenomena. But these are challenges that we must rise to, not avoid.

My contention is that public policy is not only a legitimate but also an important field within the IS discipline's scope. On the one hand, there is the pragmatic consideration that our discipline needs sufficient breadth to enable it to differentiate itself within the cluttered battlefield of disciplines. The more worthy motivation, however, is that espoused in (Clarke 1988). We need to formally recognise the moral obligation to consider the implications of the data collection and information management activities and the technological applications which we observe, and which we assist in developing.

Related Work

Cellan-Jones R. (2014) 'Stephen Hawking warns artificial intelligence could end mankind' BBC News, 2 December 2014, at

Clarke R. (1988) 'Economic, Legal and Social Implications of Information Technology' MIS Qtly 12,4 (December 1988) 517-9, PrePrint at

Clarke R. (1993) 'Asimov's Laws of Robotics: Implications for Information Technology' IEEE Computer 26,12 (December 1993) 53-61 and IEEE Computer 27,1 (January 1994) 57-66, PrePrint at

Clarke R. (1994) 'Human Identification in Information Systems: Management Challenges and Public Policy Issues' Information Technology & People 7,4 (December 1994) 6-37, PrePrint at

Clarke R. (1997) 'Instrumentalist Futurism: A Tool for Examining I.T. Impacts and Implications' Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, October 1997, at

Clarke R. (2005) 'Human-Artefact Hybridisation: Forms and Consequences' Invited Paper at the Ars Electronica 2005 Symposium on Hybrid - Living in Paradox, Linz, Austria, 2-3 September 2005, at

Clarke R. (2015a) 'Big Data Quality: An Investigation using Quasi-Empirical Scenario Analysis' Proc. 28th Bled eConference, June 2015, PrePrint at

Clarke R. (2015b) 'The Concept of Entity Perspective and Its Implications for IS Research' Keynote at ACIS 2015 in Adelaide in December 2015, PrePrint at

Majchrzak A. & Markus M.L. (2014) 'Methods for Policy Research: Taking Socially Responsible Action' Sage, 2nd Edition, 2014

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in Cyberspace Law & Policy at the University of N.S.W., and a Visiting Professor in the Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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