Another View: Using synthesis theory to drive IT policy

Bryan Beverly

Establishing IT policy for a government organization is a more complex process than people sometimes acknowledge.

A bureaucratic infrastructure hampers the organization's ability to evaluate and select emerging technologies quickly. By the time committees are formed, leave schedules are coordinated, planning sessions are held, testing is performed, documentation is completed and approval is granted, leading-edge technologies have matured into legacy systems.

Moreover, the IT policy-setting process is riskier in large government organizations than smaller groups. In smaller organizations, the groups that set, implement and have to comply with policy are likely to have some overlap. In which case, there is a vested interest in making good policies because the policy makers are directly affected by their own decisions.

But in larger organizations, the groups involved in the policy process are physically and logically segregated communities of interest and practice. Hence, the quality of the policy decisions is not immediately discernable or correctable.

The complexities and risks of government IT policy setting can be offset by using a theory-based, decision-driving methodology known as dynamic assessment.

Dynamic assessment, devised by Robert MacIver, is a synthesis theory'a body of thought that combines various perspectives into a single analytical view. It postulates that only three things need to be considered to make effective decisions: distributive changes, collective phenomena and conjectural phenomena.

By judging these factors, organizations can make effective decisions on IT policy changes.
For example, dynamic assessment would ask questions such as 'Why are people using the technology?' and 'What percentage of users need the technology?' in order to assess distributive changes such as the effect on end users.

The methodology's value is in providing a reduced set of critical decision factors. Rather than examine every delay-inducing issue and every nuance of concern, this approach considers only those issues most pertinent to making a decision on whether to move forward on a project.

In the same manner that sampling is preferable to canvassing an entire population, dynamic assessment suggests that identifying and addressing the 'big-ticket items' is preferable to an exhaustive investigation throughout the organization.

By embracing only a subset of core issues, no energy needs to be expended in re-engineering the organization or its processes. The existing architecture is left in place; what changes is the amount of information needed to make decisions.

Attempting to change bureaucratic dynamics is an effort without an endpoint. Bureaucracies are like energy'they never die, they just change form. Hence, rather than attempt to redirect a river, it is better to learn to navigate it in the most expedient manner.

As MacIver suggests, by identifying the communities of interest and practice, and by synthesizing their main concerns, government IT policy setting becomes a less arduous task.

Bryan Beverly is a senior information engineer with DigitalNet Inc. of Bethesda, Md.

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