Policymaking and the information revolution

©Larry Downing/Reuters

The OECD Observer is celebrating its 50th anniversary: no better time than to turn our focus to the currency of information itself.

This special edition is not about the information society itself or the latest cool application. We take a step back and look at some of the promises, challenges and risks that the information revolution brings to people, their work and their lives. Historically there has never been so much information and data produced as there is now, but are people better informed or able to lead better lives?

How times have evolved since November 1962 when Thorkil Kristensen, the OECD’s first secretary-general, launched the OECD Observer. In fact, in the last 20 years alone, breakthroughs in all manner of information and communications technologies have quite simply transformed the global landscape. The surge of countries such as China and Korea, renewed interest in Africa, as well as booms from Ireland to the US (at least, until the 2008 crisis), owe much to the information revolution and what it has unleashed in terms of knowledge, capabilities and potential. In 1980 US writer Alvin Toffler foresaw a coming “third wave” of societal change; could that wave have already passed by, with new waves forming, affecting health care, energy, communications, transport and more?

What about policymaking? Has the information revolution made the job of government any easier? Or are decision makers in a tougher position in today’s faster, information-rich environment than they were before? From handling the right sources and advice to making announcements and rallying support, has the game changed, if not the rules as well?

Nothing new under the sun?

The world has seen several information revolutions in the past, and the current one is certainly not the last. Think of scrolls and government bulletins issued in Roman times, tipao news sheets during China’s Han dynasty, or modern newspapers, which first appeared in Europe in the 1600s. The following 200 years brought more global changes. As Emma Rothschild wrote in the OECD Observer in 2003, “There has been a ‘revolution in commerce, in the power of nations, in the customs, the industry and the government of all peoples.’ Continents are connected as though by ‘flying bridges of communication.’” She was citing Abbé Raynal, an 18th century political commentator, writing in 1770.

Is it different this time? Probably yes. In Raynal’s time, globalisation was a slower affair, with dispatches taking several weeks to cross oceans and continents, though news of royal births and revolutions were nevertheless greeted as hot news.

Then in the 20th century came radio and television. President John F Kennedy lauded the power of television to shape politics by subjecting political figures to the scrutiny of a public “able to detect… deception and… willing to respect political honesty.”

When Fannie Lou Hamer stood before television cameras at the 1964 US Democratic Convention and delivered her famous “Is this America?” speech, some 90% of US households had televisions, compared with 54% a decade earlier. An uncomfortable President Lyndon Johnson tried to distract attention by calling a press conference during the live showing, but the evening broadcasts would go out anyway. It was the first time that a black civil rights activist addressed the nation in her own words and through the medium of television. Having judged Mrs Hamer’s sentiments as honest, the viewing public thrust the civil rights movements to the forefront of American politics. Radio and television brought a whole new potential to transmitting information widely, but lacked things like interactivity and information management. They had few, if any, workplace applications, apart from listening to your favourite radio show!

Several factors make the latest revolutions different: the instant speed and compression of space and time; the shift away from paper to online, allowing for a greater pervasiveness, and invasiveness, of information; interactivity; the ability to store, process and manage information; and a convergence of platforms–people listen to the Internet now!

And there’s more. As former OECD chief economist, Ignazio Visco, wrote in 2002, “the dramatic fall in communication costs […] and the technological breakthroughs behind it, have led to a diffusion of ideas, technological know-how and a general spread of information at a pace that is quite unprecedented in the history of humankind.”

Great expectations

When the OECD Observer emerged in those post-war decades, divulging information to the public was a delicate exercise. After all, as the first editorial pointed out, it was in an atmosphere of confidentiality that political results were obtained.

A Cold War veil of paranoia hung over many proceedings, which the new magazine helped to lift: as Kristensen wrote, “a step was taken towards a wider dissemination of this [organisation’s] knowledge.”

Today, two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the Internet, people’s expectations have changed. Openness has become standard, as has instantaneousness. The digital information world is accelerating and reinventing itself via mobile applications and big data. Such changes bring challenges for managing information and knowledge, sorting noise from substance, ensuring effective infrastructures are in place, competing for attention and making decisions in an information world where fundamental choices can be obscured by tweets and Facebook “likes”. This special anniversary edition of the OECD Observer takes a brief look at just some of these challenges.

Power tech

“Four more years.” When Barack Obama won his 2nd term as US president, he tweeted this announcement of his victory. It became the most read tweet of all time.

Indeed, President Obama, whose campaign in 2008 had also leaned on the Internet, had 24 million followers on Twitter at the time of writing, and was the only politician in the top 20, the rest being personalities from the sports and entertainment worlds. But information is power, and many other politicians around the world also have Twitter accounts.

Social media featured in the 2012 French elections, and has made its presence felt more generally in politics worldwide over the past year or two. Moreover, politicians are turning to mobile applications to garner data and check trends.

Mastering new forms of communication has become indispensible to all those seeking power or to influence policy, and not just politicians. Labour unions, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and charities have seized the opportunities they offer, and international organisations such as the OECD have also had to adapt.

One reason for this is the Internet, which helped to spur globalisation, although it also ignited protests against it. Take the Multinational Agreement on Investment (MAI) being negotiated at the OECD in the 1990s. In 1997, the Polaris Institute, a Canadian NGO, obtained a draft of the agreement and circulated the draft by email, spreading it around the web like wildfire. Anti-globalisation movements were flourishing at the time, and came to a head at the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) conference in Seattle, Washington. The turnout of more than 40,000 protestors surprised many. Though their anger was directed at the WTO, the city of Seattle declared itself an “MAI-free zone”. Faced with vocal and articulate opposition, led by people such as Public Citizen’s Lori Wallach, and with discords starting to bubble among the negotiators themselves, the MAI was shelved.

Beyond the detail, what people (and not just NGOs) were clearly demanding was openness and dialogue in public policymaking generally. Several organisations have since developed their engagement with civil society, a prime example being the annual OECD Forum which has been a regular event on the global calendar since its inception in 2000. The OECD Observer has published far more guest opinion articles since that time, while blogs have flourished. Public engagement has become a modus operandi.

Meanwhile, the information revolution has rolled on with smart interactive tools allowing people to do more than just comment; through the OECD Better Life Index, for instance, the public is helping to build the well-being metrics of the future. Moreover, mobile technology has enabled multiple campaigns and “flash mobs” to campaign on any issue.

Could NGOs now be suffering from these new tools? Perhaps, for as Phil Evans writes in this edition, soft protest online via clicks cannot replace organised civil campaigns. Even if the jury is still out on the effects of the Arab Spring or the Occupy protests of recent years, these demonstrate a new, less centralised type of street demonstration that is not fully controlled by the traditional standard bearers of protest. Established political parties, trade unions and NGOs seem unsure about how to respond. If new forms of governance are emerging, they could bring challenges, as well as qualities.

What about lobbies? Unsurprisingly, these often prefer face-to-face meetings to Facebook, though this may also change. Two of Washington’s biggest firms cultivate sizable Twitter followings. And beyond the traditional lobbyist, more think-tanks have come on the scene, adding their angle and agendas to key debates. According to Anne Glover, the European Commission president’s chief scientific adviser writing in this edition, a real challenge is how to make sure the facts are not only heard, but lead to better policies.

Clearly, policymakers must take new communication technologies seriously. By 2018, mobile penetration is expected to reach 96% globally, which works out at about one mobile subscription per person on earth.

With almost no barriers to obtaining or exchanging information, people have come to expect a clear and immediate response from institutions. Many countries now have interactive e-government services, permitting citizens to interact with governments on everything from health and education to security and tax. Governments are even encouraging a more dynamic involvement, the emphasis on finding out what citizens want, rather than deciding what they need. New big data can help get down to ever finer detail about those wants and concerns.

In a 2012 magazine interview, Roy Temple Cassidy, head of one of Washington’s biggest lobbying firms, said that political candidates must deal with more thirdparty groups than they did 25 years ago: “… as a candidate, you are much less the master of your domain”. Policymakers may spend less time at guesswork, but given the sophistication of new technology, they may end up spending more time trying to decipher the messages and trends in the din of voices.

Cyberspace is where the big questions are being debated, but whether it is the harbinger of better outcomes remains to be seen.

Nor is continued public trust a given. The ability of information technology (IT) to hoover up minute personal details is causing consternation, and the OECD is looking closely at the implications of comprehensive data collection, particularly about consumers’ online activities.

In fact, privacy and security are issues the OECD has been addressing for 30 years, with its guidelines on privacy and security of information systems now being standards among stakeholders and policymakers everywhere.

Still, fighting abuse is a moving target for any organisation. As Rick McDonell, who heads the Financial Action Task Force, which combats money laundering and illicit financing, suggests in this edition, the glare of public attention is not always an asset. IT has brought undoubted benefits, but the risks posed by new technologies must be recognised. Twitter, Facebook, and even SMS texts can cause embarrassment, with politicians getting into trouble as discreet (and indiscreet) tweets end up as headline news.

Everyone feels compelled to react in real time, which sometimes catches policymakers and markets in a cat and mouse game. The euro crisis has been a case in point, as sound political announcements reassure jittery markets one day, lose their effect the next, and cause a scramble for new initiatives and another rifle of announcements.

Clearly, new habits and an online culture, whether in policymaking or security, will take time to form. The trouble is, some governments want to go further, and are pushing to constrain the Internet with internationally-agreed rules. Other governments are opposed to attempts to hoist state-led controls on cyberspace, preferring to preserve the open, borderless, multi-stakeholder model that has driven the Internet’s success.

What you don’t know can hurt you

Changes in the information society have always been drivers of progress, but as Rothschild notes in citing an 18th century critic, the politics of global information were divisive “The eyes of the world have been blinded by publications”.

In a world where more data has been produced in a year than in all of history, are we about to face an unfathomable plethora of information?

Knowledge management is now a serious undertaking for organisations and governments, just as it is for businesses and households. New digital tools will help make sense of the mass of data and how to process and transmit it.

As knowledge is a public good, such systems must also cater for future generations. Building a reliable knowledge bank is all the more challenging in an age where online pages are being deleted and information lost on unusable disks and abandoned computer drives. As Deborah Woodyard of the British Library wrote in the OECD Observer in 2003, Leonardo da Vinci’s old notebooks can still be opened, but can your old floppy?

Hopefully, future researchers will be able to access today’s OECD Observer just as they can a notebook by da Vinci. And despite the swirling kaleidoscope of data and news, with luck they will be able to find what they want, and the time to read it as well.


Woodyard Deborah (2003), “The great digital information disappearing act”, in OECD Observer No 240/241, December.

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977),Testimony before the Credentials Committee, Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, New Jersey, August 22, 1964. http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/ sayitplain/flhamer.html

OECD/ITU (2011). M-Government: Mobile Technologies for Responsive Governments and Connected Societies

Visit www.oecd.org/internet/

©OECD Observer No 293, Q4 2012

Economic data

GDP : +0.5%, Q4 2014
Employment rate: 65.9%, Q4 2014
Annual inflation : 0.60% Mar 2015
Trade : -3.0% exp, -3.7 imp, Q4 2014
Unemployment : 6.993% Feb 2015
More moderate expansion ahead? Composite leading indicators
Updated: 12 May 2015


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