The study of e-Government has a normative orientation. As researchers, we seek to influence policy or practice in the ultimate service of of development goals. Heeks and Bailur's study of the literature (Heeks & Bailur 2007) reveals an overwhelmingly optimistic academic discourse on the potential contribution of e-Government. Yet, in over a decade of e-Government research, most government information systems projects in the developing world have ended in either partial or total failure (Heeks 2003).
The information systems design literature has been quick to offer prescriptions to ailing information systems projects. e-Government research has lagged behind, failing to providing actionable guidance to practitioners as well as to derive learning from practice (Rose & van Rossum 2005, Heeks & Bailur 2007). In a fundamentally applied field, 'echo chamber' research has little value.
In terms of their perceived development role, e-Government projects are situated overwhelmingly within the development-as-modernisation discourse (Moodley 2005, Gurumurthy & Singh 2009). Most projects follow a top-down, “functionalist” model (Hirscheim & Klein 1989). IT systems are acquired by management, developed by technologists and provided to passive 'users' of systems and services. The software development process is closed off to context and to community knowledge systems, and project failure is a frequent consequence.
In this paper, we argue that openness, understood as an active process of engagement, knowledge-sharing and co-creation, is key to developing research practices that generate “actionable knowledge” (Hearn & Foth 2005) for ICT-enabled development. Adopting an interpretative action research perspective, we understand the researcher as embedded within a community of information system stakeholders (Blake & Tucker 2006; Byrne & Sahay 2007). This attitude of engagement is enacted through considered participation, and a learning orientation that recognizes the profound diversity of experiences among stakeholder groups in ICT4D projects. Open research practices are also concerned with promoting openness in the process of academic knowledge production, national government policy and local government practice, and with increasing the recognition of community and organizational knowledge systems and “alternate rationalities” (Avgerou 2000).
Outline of research
Experiences from two ICT for service delivery projects in South Africa, one in HIV/AIDS and one in drinking water quality, demonstrate barriers to openness but also important successes. Cell-Life, started in 2001 as a university research collaboration to investigate the possibilities of using converging technologies within the HIV/AIDS sector. It became a separate not-for-profit organisation in 2006. The organization currently implements ICT systems which (as of mid-2009) manage the dispensation of antiretroviral drugs to approximately 50 000 patients. In the Aquatest Project, an international collaboration looking at water quality management in the developing world, our team is working with local government to develop a cellphone application to communicate water test results. In both projects, we have tried to enact a shift toward openness in the technologies with work with - preferring open source and open standards - and in the system development process through the use of iterative and incremental methods, evolutionary prototyping and participatory design. We have also engaged with the research process itself, trying to establish a developmental understanding of our work as information systems researchers that presents openness as a vital enabler.
The ideal of open research practice translates imperfectly onto the complex and problematic landscape of government service delivery. Powerful structural factors (both internal and external) undermine the South African government's stated commitment to use open standards and prefer open source software. The political utility of a “technocentric and determinist” discourse on ICTs for development (Moodley 2005) promotes top-down, business-driven solutions over open engagement at local level.
In both system design and research, attempts to engage using participatory methods are severely constrained by the time-limited nature of participants work. At the same time, evolutionary prototyping has proven a valuable way of eliciting user participation in system design (Brown et al 2007).
We have also established the value of a longitudinal action research approach, where projects are developed over the course of several years, and narrative methods that help to build a shared, context-sensitive understanding of the system (Greenhalgh et al 2005; Lopez-Garay 2002). Openness and co-creation is impossible without relationships at ground level, built in increments as trust is established and in turn fundamental to the process of shared development.
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Authors: Melissa Loudon and Ulrike Rivett