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Roger Clarke's 'IS and Public Policy'

Public Policy is Within-Scope for IS Research

Panellist's Comments to a Senior Scholars Forum
at ICIS 2015, December 2015, Fort Worth TX

The accompanying slide-set is available, in PDF and Ppt97

I was unable to attend, and these comments were prepared
for delivery by the Chair, Prof. Fred Niederman, of Saint Louis University

The presentation is supported by a short written statement,
and by a much deeper Working Paper

Version of 8 October 2015

Roger Clarke **

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Panellist's Opening Statement (705 words, 5 substantive slides)


IS researchers claim to be observers of mighty revolutions, and to some extent contributors to them. The current round of excitement includes 'big data', the Internet of Things, the 'chipification' of things and animals, and the 'datafication' of people. If we want to be serious players in such research spaces, we need to aligned our notion of the 'disciplinary core', and our research philosophy, questions and techniques, with the needs of decision-makers.

As a starting-point, we need to acknowledge a missing element in our thinking about research.


The term 'perspective' can refer to the particular theoretical lens that a researcher looks through. In the present context, on the other hand, it's not the researcher's perspective that's relevant. Various parties have a direct interest in the phenomena that IS researchers observe, and its their perspectives that matter.

Which of those parties do we perceive as the beneficiary of the research work?


Here's one way of imposing some order on the large number of possible perspectives. The left-hand column shows a range of different levels of abstraction. Low-down is a single organisation, and above that are collectives of organisations, regions, nations, and the world economy. There are also different levels of abstraction on the social dimension, for individuals and various kinds of collectives. In the third column, representing the environment dimension, the lower levels are biological in nature, and the troposphere matters because that's where climate happens - and happens rather too much these days, it seems.

So: which perspective is adopted in IS research?


Roger's claim is that the dominant perspective is that of organisations. He's tested his intuition by analysing samples of publications in journals and conference proceedings, and found that (allowing for definitional questions, and for variations among venues) between 65% and 90% of published IS research is strongly committed to the interests of what he refers to as 'the system sponsor'.

So: How does that finding relate to this Panel's theme of 'Public Policy'?


The public policy literature is pretty vague, but these appear to be the key elements of a useful definition. Importantly, public policy matters involve interests on the economic, and the social, and the environmental dimensions. Negotiations, and a dialogue or dialectic, are necessary to enable progress towards action, and delivery is dependent on collaboration among multiple organisations.

What are the key features of research that can support public policy activities?


Public policy is problem-driven. And it's solution-oriented.

So it needs to incorporate not only descriptive, explanatory and predictive models, but also normative modes.

'Pure' research that pursues knowledge for its own sake can't deliver.

Nor can 'applied' research, because it's driven by the availability of tool.

The mind-set that's needed is 'instrumentalism'.


A way to flesh this out is to experiment with variations of the research question that Lynda Applegate proposed earlier. In the scheme presented here, Lynda's question is on the economic dimension, and at a mid-to-high level of abstraction.


A more typical form for an IS research question is: 'What are the strategic implications for this organisation of an IS intervention or a disruptive technology?'. Lynda's question is clearly much closer to the public policy realm than that one.


But public policy research questions are framed in a manner that goes beyond the economic dimension, and confronts some uncomfortable facts.

Not only are there multiple dimensions, but there are also multiple levels of abstraction on each of them.

More challenging still, when an intervention or a technology disrupts the status quo, , there are conflicts among the various interests.

[SLIDE 10]

And public policy research embodies yet another demand.

Researchers must get out beyond the descriptive and interpretive, and embrace the normative mode. The multiple perspectives need to be balanced in some way.

To make contributions to public policy, IS research needs to explain how the impacts of an IS or technology intervention can be managed.

[SLIDE 11]

To service the needs of public policy, IS researchers need to be much more flexible in their adoption of perspectives, and reflect far more than just the needs of system-sponsors.

The text, slide-set and supporting papers can be found at the URL indicated on the slide, and by searching on <Roger Clarke ICIS15>.

Summing-Up Comments (294 words, 2 slides)

[SLIDE 13]

We need to shift the focus of the IS discipline.

It needs to encompass public policy research in a meaningful way.

To achieve that, there are many steps that we have to take.

Here are just a couple of the challenges.

We must at least tolerate research questions of a much broader kind than we have been used to seeing in the past.

Preferably we should encourage them. And really each of us should be conducting some of our own research from alternative perspectives, and from multiple perspectives.

A few research techniques that are already established within the IS discipline are appropriate for policy research, notably action research and design science. But we must carefully add to our kit-bag of recognised research techniques.

We must also get over the last couple of decades of mis-directed discussion about 'the IT artefact'.

We need to return to the IS discipline's real core, which is systems that handle data and information.

[SLIDE 14]

Another of the impediments that has emerged from our eternal existential angst is the emphasis on rigour to such an extent that the relevance of IS research is undermined.

To deliver value, we have to achieve a quality threshold. And more rigour is better than less, but only if the objective is always relevance, and rigour is a servant to it, not the primary objective.

The IS discipline's future depends on exploiting a distinctive difference from competitors.

We need to Discover perspective as an important element of research design.

We need to Deliberate on, Determine, and Declare the appropriate perspective(s) for each research project that we undertake.

And, as a community, we need to achieve a far better balance among the various perspectives than the present dominance of the system-sponsor's perspective.

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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