Bureaucracy, Technology, and Class Interests

May 22, 2020

I’ve been slowly reading The Government Machine by Jon Agar. The book is a history of the uses of information and information technology in late 19th and early 20th century Britain. It’s also one of the most useful books I’ve read about the open gov, open data, and civic tech movements.

Agar’s unfolds a story about a series of “expert movements” to get the British government to collect information about its peoples, industry, and governmental operations and to appropriately use that information for effective and efficient government. The conflicts, organizational forms, and even personality types should be familiar those who have been taken part in similar movements in the early 21st century.

Many of Agar’s analyses and and critiques of our Victorians and Edwardians predecessors still slice. It’s a good book and I recommend it.

Today, I want to talk about one part in particular. In Agar’s account, the leadership of the British civil service was ready to adopt office machines (like card sorters and punch cards) because there was already a mental and bureaucratic division between the leadership of the civil service who made and directed policy and the lower ranks that carried them out. Indeed, the lower ranks were already sometimes described as “mechanical.”

The elites of the civil service, at worst, did not see mechanization as a threat, and often saw it natural and reinforcing the division between the thinking part (what they did) and the execution what the clerks and secretaries and the rest of the apparatus did.

To put it coarsely, the introduction of mechanized office machinery and tabulation fit the worldview and class interests of the civil service elites, which made it relatively easy to mechanize the civil service.

Putting aside whether Agar’s claim is true in fact, it seems like the “digital services” and egovernment movements have not had the same alignment with the worldview and class interests of top bureaucrats in their age.

Indeed, it has often seemed to be opposed to it. Proponents of these movements have often positioned them as about introducing different values into government as much as, if not more so, then introducing new technology.

I don’t really know how true this is. I don’t have the needful intimacy with the leaderships of governmental departments to speak to their worldview or interests as group. Still, it has me asking a few questions.

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