Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Outsourcing and Political Power: Bureaucrats, Consultants, Vendors and Public Information Technology

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Outsourcing and Political Power: Bureaucrats, Consultants, Vendors and Public Information Technology

Article excerpt

The rapidly growing governmental IT outsourcing trend raises different questions: Who, inside bureaucracy, governs computer systems after outsourcing? Which actors gain or lose political clout when the government begins to aggressively outsource its IT operations? How does IT outsourcing change the relationships among bureaucrats, consultants, and vendors? The article highlights the increasingly important and behind-the-scenes role the consultant plays as an intermediary between the MIS bureaucrat and technological vendors. IT consultants exert an enormous amount of political power because they are the "glue" binding together all the actors involved in producing and maintaining public information technology. Regrettably, this new consultant-centered environment is responsible for the degradation of the organizational and technological skills of MIS bureaucrats and also impairs the feedback information flow between bureaucrats and vendors regarding the status of public computer projects. Therefore, the article suggests that the unchecked power of IT consultants hinders the ability of bureaucrats to be accountable for the systems they manage.

Numerous corporations and governments followed Kodak's 1989 landmark decision to outsource its IT operations.[1] For example, the British Benefits Agency outsourced OpStart, its massive social welfare computerization project that was hailed at the end of the 1980s as the largest computer project in Europe. Britain also outsourced the buildup of the new Inland Internal Revenue Service computer system.[2] Likewise, New Zealand outsourced the construction of its new Air Traffic Control system, Chicago City Hall outsourced the computerization of its parking violations fee collection system, and Singapore outsourced the automation of its border crossing checkpoints system. Today, organizations spend about 9% of their IT dollars via outsourcing channels and will outsource even more of their IT operations in the next several years.[3]

Outsourcing is a management strategy that farms out non-core organizational activities to vendors who specialize in these activities in order to execute them more efficiently. In the public sector, the bureaucrat transfers resources to the vendor such as real estate and employees and, in return, receives a commitment for a certain level of service. IT outsourcing includes the management and operation of computer facilities, the maintenance of information networks, the development of computer infrastructure and applications, and the training and support of employees. But governmental IT outsourcing raises tough questions. Who, inside bureaucracy, governs and controls computer systems after outsourcing? Which actors gain or lose political clout when the government begins to aggressively outsource its IT operations? How does IT outsourcing change the relationships among bureaucrats, consultants, and vendors? These questions are important precisely because we already know that governmental work is a bargaining game among numerous individuals and groups and that this bureaucratic political game shapes the behavior and motivation of individual bureaucrats.[4] Ever since Downs made his prophetic 1967 statement that computers will dramatically alter the balance of political power inside bureaucracy, scholars have been searching to identify which groups of bureaucrats gain political power from computerization.[5] Hence, by answering the question "who, inside bureaucracy, governs public technologies after outsourcing?," I hope to shed new light on the broader "who governs bureaucracy?" question.

The article argues that outsourcing has changed the balance of political power among IT bureaucrats, consultants, and vendors. Directors of Public Management Information Systems (PMIS) departments are compelled nowadays to write sophisticated Request for Proposal (RFP) documents and outsourcing contracts laden with technological, legal, and accounting jargon. …

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