PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION STUDIES: THE DIGITAL TRAJECTORY.

Date01 December 2022
AuthorDrechsler, Wolfgang
  1. Introduction

    When the very honorable invitation reached me to contribute to this special issue of the Transylvanian Review of Administrative Sciences (TRAS) on 'Strategic Challenges for Public Administration--The Way Forward', with its special reference to Public Administration studies and an emphasis on digital governance, which is both driving and driven by PA, I realized that I had last dealt with this topic in writing half a decade ago (Drechsler, 2017), based, in turn, on earlier texts (especially Drechsler, 2015). Five years are an eternity in the digital sphere, and so it seemed obvious to revisit and update these considerations. Rather than commenting on them, then, this is a genuinely new iteration of that text, more new than old, or more exactly its ICT part, from the perspective of 2022 [1].

  2. From AI to gaming?

    How Information and Communication Technology (ICT) influences, and especially will influence in the future public administration (PA), i.e. the digital trajectory, is one of the most-researched and published--and talked-about--topics in the discipline, often under the label of Digital Governance--even the state as an institution might be transformed, although it almost never is (Drechsler, 2018). But how about ICT's influence on PA as a field of scholarly inquiry?

    In this context, as in so many others, the future is here already. What that means is that most people are not fully aware of what is actually going on in ICT and what we already have achieved. But there is also a fashion and even a hype element, as always in PA (Wright, 1997). The most recent 'pig that is driven through the village', to use the German saying, is Artificial Intelligence, or AI. Papers, workshops, conferences, and even graduate degree courses (!) in AI and PA abound, and the impetus for this--staying abreast of tech--is both natural and laudable. But the fact is that most of what sells as AI today is 'just' Big Data, i.e. the algorithms in question are not sentient, but rather, from a mass of data, patterns are abstracted and applied (see Ganascia, 2018). Certainly, there were and are a few good examples of AI in PA (see e.g., Bastani et al., 2021), but often enough, at least right now, to quote Lanier and Weyl (2020), 'AI is an Ideology, not a Technology'. In addition, the technology-driven enthusiasm for Big Data (whether called AI or not) often hinders realizing the very serious 'political risks of Big Data dominance' (DeBrabander, 2021). This is quite apart from the fact that nobody could seriously want data- or generally technology-driven public policy, since that would curtail human agency, and nothing in the public sphere is more crucial than that (Drechsler, 2020).

    In contrast, in my opinion, a really important new phenomenon, one that has largely been flying under the radar, especially of PA (and even governance) studies experts, has been the rise of gaming (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter, 2009), and here particularly the specific mode of watching other people game. In fact, although this is more of an anecdotal statement, in spite of people following closely the actual war in Ukraine, almost as many youths seem to have engaged in a digital, fantasy-medieval game called Elden Ring in early 2022 (Faulkner, 2022). But this is actually closely intertwined, given that a majority of people below 24, i.e. including the college student cohorts, receive their news primarily via social media, to the extent that they are not trying to avoid (classical) news altogether (Eddy, 2022).

    But spending a large portion of their time online, political information and ideology for this group does not only come when one seeks it, but during whatever one does, and here gaming comes back. The habit to watch other people game, not to only game oneself, as one of the main engagements of that group has not often been noticed outside of specialist circles, although youth exposure to the main platform providing this, twitch (www.twitch.tv), tends to be the longest of all platforms (Breland, 2020). The running commentaries and chats on twitch are often political (with some tendency to be very right-wing; Breland, 2020) and of strong impact (Deng et al., 2015). As importantly, the games themselves and the values they (re)present have clear political and even administrative shaping potential, and while they are--as Elden Ring--often in line with mainstream economics, their political orientation is usually highly aggressive and even destructive (Stallabrass, 1993). In a world where the public sphere has been seriously endangered by social media in a 'new structural transformation', as Jurgen Habermas has just described in some detail (2022), to be aware of that and put values first and tech second is hardly anywhere more crucial than in PA. And there is no public sphere, or public value, in Elden Ring [2].

  3. MOOCs

    Academics in the previous years have been very much impressed by the rise of 'massive open online courses' or MOOCs. A main driver in PA is, as we said, what is cool and in fashion, and if everybody does it, you have to do it, because if not, you look bad (cf. only Friedman, 2013). MOOCs are mass-enrolment online courses, centrally offered, to which everybody can subscribe; the legatees of putting lectures online and long-distance learning. There is still no business model for them, the creation of MOOCs is very expensive, but since everybody does it, one does it, too. One studies something online, the teacher is online, maybe the exams are local, but often there are no exams. Some of the MOOCs are really successful, many of them have enrolments in the 100,000s, and there are a couple of important platforms, like Coursera, that offer them and bring them to about any connected household (see The Economist, 2012).

    But the MOOCs, or similar arrangements, have several problematic implications even in addition to the ones just mentioned. If there is an online course for 200,000 people, what kind of exam can one give? How can this be graded? One can only ask questions that are basically multiple-choice checkable or checkable by computer or other infrastructure, because otherwise it is not possible. That is one of the influences of the MOOCs, and if MOOCs become more popular, that, in return, has an influence on science. MOOCs privilege knowledge that is replicable and general and usual. One cannot have courses for many people in which one asks essay questions for students to react in a nuanced way to complicated problems. Of course, the more literary computers become, the more they can ask complex-looking questions, because they can understand and judge the answers to them as well. On the other hand, the tendency to ask simple, easily evaluated questions is not only technology-driven, but it also conforms to the logic both of large classes and/ or teaching being a quite low priority in an academic system where--often existentially necessary--funding is allotted based on anything but good teaching, however measured.

    MOOCs are therefore pushing the very technical approach, which is the mainstream approach in PA, and in university teaching generally, anyway (Drechsler, 2017). This has two consequences: First, an already visible split between elite and virtual education, i.e. actually it is not so that now the poor people from the provinces get an MIT education. MIT people still get an MIT education, for which they pay a lot of money, tens of thousands every semester, and whether the education is worth it or not may be debatable, but the networking surely is (Rothman, 2014). Thus, one gets a mass education for the masses, and the top people (in a money sense) still get to talk in an exclusive environment with the top professors (see Allen, 2013). Research has consistently shown that even within the MOOC itself, students from a more elite background do better in any way (Hansen and Reich, 2015; Reich and...

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