Tuesday 19 April 2022

In Search of the Citizen

Heather Broomfield & Lisa Reutter

Broomfield H, Reutter L. In search of the citizen in the datafication of public administration. Big Data & Society. January 2022. doi:10.1177/20539517221089302
How are citizen perspectives problematised and included in policy and practitioner discourse in the datafication of public administration?

During an initial analysis of empirical material collected to map the Norwegian public sector, we were struck by the discursive absence of citizens in the realisation of this all-encompassing administrative reform. This sparked our curiosity, leading us to raise our gaze from the organisational to the system level and investigate who was invited to participate in policy formation and how citizens were described, in both the resulting documents and  practitioner discourse. 

The Norwegian data-driven context is particularly interesting to investigate. The state has collected vast amounts of data on the population for decades, the recirculation of which can make data-driven public administration realisable on a scale unimaginable in many other countries. Norway is also characterised by a corporative pluralism where collaboration with externals and inter-dependent decision making with interest organisations and business representative organisations, is deemed fundamental to policy making (Rokkan, 1966). 

Unexpectedly, we identified a paternalistic and top-down technocratic approach to citizen engagement with non-participation particularly apparent at the policy making level. Citizens and civil society are reduced to a passive but demanding ‘user’ to be served by the public sector. This is in direct contrast to active engagement with the private sector during all phases - from policy production through to implementation. 

Datafication often escapes democratic decision-making as the context, values, and agendas of this administrative reform are obscured from citizens and civil society. We hope this paper sparks interest among practitioners and scholars alike.