About the ITAS study option
Information technology and administrative systems
- Presentation of a new study-option and some of its challenges
Dag Wiese Schartum
- Why a study option in Information Technology and Administrative Systems?
- The challenge of formalizing legal rules
- Diving into the ambiguities and modalities of texts
- More extensive use of information
- Textbases and retrieval
- Organizational challenges
- Organization, staff and intake of students
- A laboratory with multiple functions
- A manuscript series
- A new subject of a new discipline?
- Concluding remarks
The University of Oslo offers a two year postgraduate degree in Information Technology and Administrative Systems (ITAS). This is an inter-faculty study option, established through co-operation between four faculties. The subject, which combines law, social science, informatics and philosophy, seeks to analyse and discuss the consequences and challenges of information technology in public and private administrative organizations.
This article presents the new study option in the context of the issues that he study will address. The first part of this article explains the need for a study option like ITAS. It examines three types of applications of information technology in administrative organs to sketch some of the issues that the new study option will address. The second part of the article sets out details on the organization of the study option.
Information technology is an increasingly important tool for decision-making, both in public administration and in business. The new post-graduate degree of Information Technology and Administrative Systems take its point of departure in three important administrative applications of computers:
- the transformation of legal rules in legislation, contracts etc to rules in computer programs;
- the use of large-scale databases, telecommunications and easily transportable storage media, to process pre-collected and structured information;
- the accessing of large scale text-bases by means of telecommunication and easily transportable storage media.
The computer is a "general machine"; i.e. given the existence of a suitable computer program, the computer is capable of executing operations within every field. One implication of this is that computers within an organization may be used for multiple purposes. These purposes are often closely related: e.g. computer systems in public administration calculate taxes and benefits, process administrative cases, help keep accounts, deliver statistics and supply the top management with planning information. The degree of integration between the functions of the computer varies. There may appear to be one system with different modules or a bundle of systems. Notwithstanding this, the main point to note is the inter-connection of the many functions that computers within large organizations have.
Of course, the fact that one function of an organization is closely connected to other functions, is really nothing new. What may be seen as special in the computer age is that people dealing with different functions employ the same tool, i.e. a joint computer system or closely integrated computer systems. Thus, computer systems have become the common fate of various expert groups. It is no longer sufficient for these groups to have a talk with each other from time to time. A need exists for a greater degree of co-operation and co-ordination between expert groups and functions. For example, the job of a jurist vis-a-vis the computer is first of all to ensure that the law describing calculations etc is correctly implemented in the computer system. However, this is also partly the challenge for the accountants within the field of money-distribution. Moreover, the choices of jurists and accountants will deeply affect the jobs of the system-designers, programmers and other "technical staff". In other words, the computer makes systems development and maintenance a common arena for several expert groups of an organization. This makes it necessary to implement processes based on parallel decision-making, processes which are specific for each subject, but which have the goal of implementing results in the same computer system.
We are approaching an important reason for initiating the study option, Information Technology and Administrative Systems: the meeting between different expert groups surrounding the computer, as described above, creates a need for close co-operation. Ability to co-operate does not only require willingness to co-operate. In addition, knowledge of other expert groups' perspectives and approaches is of key importance. Today, such knowledge often seems to be lacking. One of the objectives of the study option is to build bridges; i.e. to educate students through inter-disciplinary courses so that they can work fruitfully in close contact with other groups of professionals.
Distribution and re-distribution of money is of great importance in welfare states. One of the most marked changes in public administration is the fact that parts of legal provisions establishing methods of calculations and other computable operations have been transformed into computer programs. Banks and insurance companies are examples of branches in the private sector which make use of computers in a similar way. One difference is, however, that the computer programs in the private sector are often based on contracts: the detailed contract provisions that settle the account with one's bank or insurance company are found in computer programs.
From the perspective of Information Technology and Administrative Systems, this is a development that yields a variety of problems and challenges. There are three problems I mention here. The first is the problem of legally correct programming. Incorrect programming entails a high risk of incorrect decisions. One's tax, social benefit or interest and instalment payments must be calculated by a correct computer program if errors are to be avoided. It is not likely that the average citizen will reveal programming mistakes. In Norway, for example, within a special category of cases, the Directorate of Taxes has mis-calculated pension points for more than twenty years without disturbance from complaining citizens!
The term "correct" does not really indicate the whole family of problems in question. One problem is that programming tends to make necessary certain additions to the existing legal sources. The contract between a bank and its costumers, for example, does not solve every problematic situation. In the computer program, however, all questions of significance for the computerized routines must be sorted out. This situation may be seen as a revision of the legal sources in question (an Act, a contract). But do we have decision-making processes within systems development which show that these questions are recognized?
I have mentioned that the computer programs which calculate pluses and minuses in the account of our welfare lives should be correct and have a sufficient legal basis. For the sake of precision, it should be added that it is also a challenge to reveal the selected interpretations of the legal sources which are transformed to programming code. A systems development process is a process of revealing interpretation problems and solving them. However, the systems developers are not adjudicators who resolve certain legal questions with an ultimate power. Thus, it is important that the ambiguities of the legal text forming the basis of the programming are not superseded by the the preciseness of the computer program, i.e. without amendment of the legal text itself.
The above-mentioned challenges may to a large extent be translated into questions of administrative transparency, in particular transparency of computer systems. Errors, insufficient legal bases and doubtful interpretations of computer programs will be more easy to handle if intelligible documentation of the legally relevant parts of computer programs exists. Such documentation will make it more easy for citizens to control the decisions and disagree. Just as important are the enhanced possibilities of officers to gain knowledge within areas where he or she has been replaced by the computer. Moreover, legally oriented systems documentation may make it more easy for officers to check that decisions are correct. More importantly, however, such documentation is a prerequisite for guiding citizens within the domain of the computer.
Considering transparency by means of systems documentation may, however, be seen as an unintended insult to citizens. Is it acceptable to feed people with documents and leave them with the paper work when the public and private organizations need only to push a button to reach a result? Important parts of the complexity of rules need not exist in the minds of those who are in charge of the computer system where solutions are recessed. I.e. the computer program represents an ability to cope with rule complexity, but as tool for officers only. Thus, it may be claimed that computerization may change the power relationship between large public and private organization administering welfare, and the person in the street. An answer to such a possibility could be to give citizens access to special editions of relevant computer systems, for example by means of help from an institution which knows the system and will represent citizens' interests. Why not, for example, give banks, trade union offices and the social security office access to the official tax calculation system?
The above-mentioned representation of rules in procedurally oriented computer systems is first and foremost directed towards speedy processing of large volumes of single cases. This application of computers predominates in public and private administrative organizations. At the other end of the scale are applications of information technology in order to carry out deep analyses of cases; eg. what does "shall" mean in the context of a specific text, and what is meant by "support children under the age of 18"? How may logic be used to analyse the situation, and how can we link existing legal sources in order to make useful tools for thorough evaluations?
Pilot versions of such computer systems have often been designated "expert systems" and "knowledge-based systems". They strive to improve the quality of case processing. Their prime merit is maybe not prospects of cost savings, but rather prospects of learning something about the problem at hand. Moreover, much of the work within this field should probably be classified as basic research; i.e. useful applications must probably wait.
Parts of the teaching that the SITAS will offer address considerable theoretical problems related to legal knowledge-based systems. Within this field, the theoretical basis will be analytic philosophy and artificial intelligence. Applied logic in general, and modal logic in particular, will be the basic formal tools, supplying precise modes of expression and control over consistency and sound inference. These are obviously qualities of very considerable importance in, for instance, the representation of legal reasoning, and the specification of normative systems.
The main focus in norm theory and its applications will lie in the following areas:
- Legal knowledge represenation and the explication and interpretation of legal texts.
- Analysis and design of case-handler routines.
- The formal representation of the central deontic concepts of duty, permission, right and legal competence.
- The formal representation of normative aspects of security requirements.
- The analysis of database integrity constraints.
These topics fit well within the general domain of problems outlined above. One fundamental theoretical approach which will supply a common frame for studying various aspects of these topics will be the Theory of Normative Positions (TNP), which has its roots in recent attempts to give a formal-logical analysis of Hohfeld's "fundamental legal conceptions". TNP offers the prospect of a methodological tool for representing the normative status of interacting agents within an organisational environment. There are good reasons for believing that TNP can tackle a range of characterisation problems concerning the norm-governed interaction of agents (both human agents and the component "agents" of large-scale computer systemes) in administrative systems, public and private.
The traditional procedural computer system handles calculations, conditions (if, then) and a few other "computable operations". This implies that the systems do not interact with the "real world": the facts of the cases that the computer programs operate on, are as a rule a result of human considerations, i.e. a human is needed to investigate, interpret and transform the facts of the cases into formalized standards. This manual handling of facts stands out as expensive work which it is tempting to make cheaper. As mentioned above, a strategy of re-use of information relevant to future cases is selected. The result is procedures which, to an increasing extent, are based on information from third parties. This implies increased volume of shared and exchanged information, both within the different levels of the public sector and between the private and public sectors.
Such a strategy gives rise to a series of questions, whereof one will be mentioned below (see section 7). Here, I will highlight two additional points. First, re-use of case-relevant information creates an obvious need for collaboration and co-ordination between various public administrative units, as well as between the private and public sectors. For example, since the revenue authorities have an interest in receiving correct information concerning income of employees, they will probably have an interest in influencing the quality of the information system of the company. Quality of information may, in other words, be controlled through controlling the quality of the information system which delivers the information. Similar situations may appear between public administrative units on the same level of a hierarchy (for example, between directorates) and between public administrative units on different levels of a hierarchy (between national and local government authorities). On the other hand, within the private sector, ownership and competition may hinder a similar integration and development towards an increased inter-dependency. If co-ordination and co-operation become a reality within the public sector, and at the same time the public sector collects more information from the private sector as well as from other public organs, will public administration be more powerful than today? What effects may such a development have on privacy, rule of law and the character of our political system as a whole?
The second problem I will mention, in the context of more intensive use of case-relevant information, concerns what may be called questions of data quality. Data quality is often discussed from the perspective of privacy. If information about individuals is incorrect, this may lead for example to incorrect decisions or it may harm the reputation of individuals. In the situation of decision-making, economic considerations should be added to the privacy interests. Incorrect information may give incorrect results and thus lead to appeals and correction of decisions. Erroneous information may also lead to the payment of too much benefits or the receipt of too little revenues. Thus, in total the cost of an insufficient factual basis for decisions may be high. Against this background, these questions should be posed: How vulnerable are routines based on re-use and collection of case-relevant information from public and private bodies? What are the total costs of routines which are heavily based on computers and telecommunications if the danger of fraud, misunderstandings and omissions in relation to data is high?
Today, many countries have established voluminous textbases containing legal sources (legislation, case law etc). Text-retrieval services are offered to attain a more intensive and extensive use of these texts (through Westlaw, Lexis etc). Basically, such systems require a complete and updated supply of the legal sources in question. This again makes it necessary to ask if the existing routines of updating and promulgating are sufficient? For some categories of texts the answer is often obviously "no". Internal instructions, often distributed as circular letters, will, for example, often not be updated. Old instructions are often not directly evaluated when new instructions are issued. The circulars are, instead, piled up in a "compost heap" where they are slowly forgotten as new circulars within the same or related areas are issued. This is clearly a situation which makes it impossible to create a reasonably efficient text-retrieval system. Therefore, there will be a strong desire for changed decision-making routines in order to establish a tidier and surveyable rule system. This again may have consequences for related internal routines, division of work etc.
Text-retrieval systems may also contribute to a re-definition of how subordinated parts of the organization should be instructed. The traditional way of giving general instructions is, as mentioned, to issue circular letters. These are often distributed on paper and sent to local offices. Officers at these offices then have to observe and notice the segments of these texts that concern their work, and they must see to it that the circulars are at hand whenever needed.
The existence of text-retrieval systems makes it possible to combine them with the computer systems which the officers use to register the facts of cases and which execute calculations etc. This again may prepare the ground for ingenious tools which partly give information to the officer on request, and partly interrupt an operation to make the officer aware of problems. This may help him to consider the problem according to relevant legal sources. Here, we see the contours of systems where procedural systems, text-retrieval systems and knowledge-based systems meet and form one, integrated case-processing system.
Organizational issues accompany many of the questions mentioned. Here, I will select some questions concerning the representation of legal rules in computer programs (cf section 3 above). These questions are partly of an internal, partly of an external nature. One central organizational question within the administrative bodies concerns the organization and the composition of systems development groups.
Systems development work is usually organized as projects; i.e. groups are established for a limited time and with limited tasks to establish a computer system. These groups are outside the traditional hierarchy of organizations. With a life-cycle view on systems development, and with the knowledge that legislation, contracts etc. will be amended quite frequently, implying a high number of changes in the computer systems, this habitual organizational pattern should be questioned. In my view, it becomes necessary to find ways of organizing systems development work so that it is an integrated part of the work of hierarchic organizations.
One of the questions concerning organizational relations between administrative bodies, applies to the connection between central and local administration. On the one hand, the importance of decentralization is underlined. On the other hand, computer applications may make the position of the local bodies weaker. One of the main reasons why Norwegian governments have kept local public offices alive in a number of up to 450 units, is the demand that the citizens should have easy access to and direct contact with well-qualified officers in the administrative organs. Moreover, decision-making in single cases is decentralized because those who decide should be situated close to the citizens affected. Therefore, it seems to be an undermining of the position of these offices to reduce people's access to, or need to, visit them.
Queues, limited visiting and telephone hours constitute the background for other developments. First, systems development in public (and private) administration is carried out centrally, first and foremost with manning from the central body (for example, a directorate). The development work results in computer systems which automate certain operations. Thus, the legal and administrative questions which find their solution through this work, do not represent tasks with a need for local involvement. Moreover, the lack of intelligible systems documentation puts the local bodies in the problematic situation that they often will have problems explaining the procedures of the computer, i.e. of the method of approach on which decisions concerning individuals rest.
Secondly, the attempt to cut down on administrative expenses concerning the evaluation of facts of cases (cf. section 5, above), may influence the position of local offices. An "eco-political" approach has been adopted, in the sense that re-use of information is defined as a goal. This implies increased volume of shared and/or exchanged information, both within the different levels of the public sector and between the private and public sectors. One likely consequence of this is that reports from citizens lose significance relative to reports from third parties, i.e. other public and private organizations. Another likely effect is that the benefit of going to the local office to argue that a piece of information is incorrect, will be reduced. When an increasing proportion of information is received from a third party, the local office may be regarded less and less as a suitable place to appear and protest.
Thirdly, systems development work may comprise questions which formally are within the jurisdiction of a local authority. The result is computer-based routines within areas where the local authority has a certain discretionary power. The system will formally not be of a binding nature, but could in practice (for example, in combination with insufficient manning etc.), have a decisive influence on local authorities' execution of power.
All in all, the three aspects of computerization and decentralization mentioned above may be seen as a threat to a physically dispersed administration. On the other hand, this may be compensated for by other organizational changes: for example, by merging together local administrative bodies.
In the introduction, I mentioned that the post-graduate degree of Information Technology and Administrative Systems is a result of a collaboration between four faculties: the Faculty of Law, the Faculty of Social Sciences, the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences. Several of the research environments within the four collaborating faculties are already engaged in relevant inter-disciplinary research on an international level. These activities constitute an important basis for much of the planned teaching and research at SITAS.
A Section for Information Technology and Administrative Systems (SITAS) has been established, organized under the Faculty of Law, and located within the Norwegian Research Centre for Computers and Law (NRCCL). However, SITAS is in principle not tied to the Faculty of Law and the NRCCL, and may in the future find an alternative organizational position.
According to plans, the study option will have about 20 students. To be accepted as a post-graduate ITAS student, one must have the equivalent of a Bachelors' degree in Arts or Science, in the Norwegian university system; i.e. a candidatus magisterii (cand. mag.). This is a degree which allows a combination of subjects from all of the four faculties involved. Students choose three subjects on a ground level and major in one of them. Thus, students with a cand. mag. degree have a total of at least four years education on university level. To be more precise, it is required that students have passed one of two computer science subjects (one of them with emphasis on logic and language), one of four social science subjects (political science, economy, sociology or anthropology) and a course in public law. In addition, each student must have a major in one of the subjects mentioned.
Matters concerning syllabus, curriculum, teaching method etc. for the new study option are decided upon by a Sub-council with members from each of the four faculties, one member from the scientific staff at SITAS, one from the administrative staff and one students' representative. The Sub-council also plays an important role in other matters, such as staff appointments, intake of students and major purchases of equipment.
SITAS will have room for a rather limited staff. One professor, one chief engineer, one research fellow and one clerical officer will be appointed in 1994. On a longer term, the aim is to appoint a second research fellow and two scientific officers. However, SITAS is not meant to grow large. As for teaching, the SITAS-concept is based on hiring lecturers from the departments of the four collaborating faculties. The reason for this is first and foremost of an economic nature, but it could obviously also affect the professional development of the study option (cf. above).
The post-graduate degree course in Information Technology and Administrative Systems will have a duration of two years. During the first term of the first year, students attend mandatory courses. These courses will basically be extended computers and law courses, with emphasis on issues concerning legal and administrative decision-making processes, privacy, rule of law and organizational issues tied up to questions concerning the execution of delegatory and instructional powers.
When students apply for intake for the study option, they are called on to begin thinking about a topic for their theses. During the second term of the first year, students choose two of three courses. Their choice of courses should be adapted to their choice of thesis topic. In two years' time, the intention is to extend the number of such courses from three to five.
One of the course choices during the second term of the first year is a course in norm representation, with emphasis on problems concerning formal representation of legal rules. Here, the aim is to present the issue in a continuum from deontic logic to representation of legal rules in traditional, procedural programming languages. In the future, this course will probably be split into two: one with emphasis on analytic philosophy, mostly directed towards a theoretical approach and basic research issues; the other to a large extent directed towards applied research and methods of norm representation with central practical interest.
A second course is devoted to issues concerning information technology and organizational changes. This option will, of course, cater particularly for students whose primary background is in social science. However, quite a few organizational questions clearly affect jurists and computer scientists too. Composition of systems development groups and their organizational placing, and changes concerning delegation and instruction, are among the issues that probably will catch the interest of most students.
In the third course that will be offered in the second term, our first and foremost ambition is to dive into problems concerning operation and maintenance of data bases. Here, one of the obvious issues is linked to "data quality". As a separate part, issues concerning large textbases will be discussed. Retrieval in textbases containing legislation, case law, contracts, managerial documents etc, calls for an interesting meeting between law, linguistics and computer science.
The first year courses will prepare the students for the second year which is reserved for the students' work with their theses. As mentioned, the intention is that issues for the theses should be born in the minds of the students already at the start of the post-graduate study. These issues should mature into a concrete thesis topic during the first year. A supervisor will be appointed for each student as soon as possible during the first term of the first year. The supervisors' function may, in cases of theses with an inter-disciplinary approach, be divided between two persons.
Issues for theses will depend of course on the students' interests and ideas. ITAS represents a willingness to approach a concept of teaching based on applied research and a sense of what is of practical importance. This may lead to a situation where developments and challenges may be investigated by the students "in the field". Moreover, public and private organizations may find it interesting to call for critical analyses by students and see to it that the students will find open doors and open minds. I believe it will be of great importance that SITAS is able to explain and demonstrate the common interest between, on the one hand, teaching and students' research, and on the other hand, the needs of public and private organizations.
A laboratory will be the very beam of the teaching in the course. "Laboratory" may be read both as a name for a room and a name for certain functions.
The laboratory room is situated vis-a-vis the reading rooms. As for the functions, the laboratory will first and foremost be an arena for experiments and practical experience. This means that students will have the opportunity to do programming and systems development. The intention is also to give access to computer systems which are in use within important branches of the public and the private sectors.
Secondly, the laboratory will function as a systems library, i.e. the room will contain up-dated documentation of selected computer systems which are considered to be of key importance in Norwegian society. An additional aim is to establish access to as many of these as possible, either by means of local storage or through telecommunication.
Thirdly, the laboratory will have important functions within teaching. The study option does not only aim to educate students with high theoretical qualifications. In addition, it will be emphasized that practical skills and knowledge of "the world outside" are of great importance. Thus, the laboratory will be a supplement to preparation for/evaluation of excursions to administrative organizations.
Finally, the laboratory will have a service function for the students: i.e. the room will give access to computer tools which are assumed useful for post-graduate students. Most students are expected to have a private computer with a word-processing system. The laboratory will supplement these tools with more specialized computer systems, information services etc.
A manuscript series has been established with the aim of stimulating research of relevance to the post-graduate degree in Information Technology and Administrative Systems. Manuscripts forming part of the series must make explicit the links between the issues with which they are concerned and the subject area of information technology and administrative systems. The series embraces manuscripts of differing formats and levels of ambition, and is intended to contribute to the distribution of works which otherwise would not be spread widely. The manuscripts in the series can take the form of an essay, article, lecture script, commentary or the like.
Of course, the above-mentioned phenomenona, and others, may be studied within the framework of established departments and disciplines. Law, computer science, philosophy and social sciences all discuss questions related to applications of information technology. However, it is not always possible for each university department to establish a sufficiently in-depth computer-oriented education. Even when such courses are established, the boundaries of the discipline may, moreover, be seen as a problem. Thus, inter-disciplinary approaches may be regarded necessary to break out of what may be experienced as the "strait-jacket" of the discipline. New perspectives are required and new methods should be employed.
The subject of Information Technology and Administrative Systems may partly be seen as an answer to these two situations mentioned. First, the new subject may help to provide a basis for in-depth discussions within established university disciplines; lecturers from the Section for Information Technology and Administrative systems may contribute to discussions and teaching in courses within established disciplines. Secondly, the new programme of studies may constitute an alternative for students who find the teaching within established disciplines too "narrow".
I have underlined our aim of educating people who are able to build bridges between different groups of professionals in an organization. The professional background of our students will be political science, sociology, public law, computer science, economics, analytic philosophy and anthropology. Their post-graduate study will probably be experienced as a top floor of what the previous courses they have attended have built up. Thus, we expect that after completing the course in ITAS, most of our students will still think of themselves as political scientists, sociologists or public law professionals etc.
On the other hand, we are facing an interesting period when the course in ITAS will find its shape. This process is not, of course, something which can be controlled by those in charge of planning the subject and of lecturing. In the common and mandatory part of the course, we build on a solid basis of computers and law research developed at the Norwegian Research Centre for Computers and Law. However, those who will attend these courses will have their own professional identity, and are to some extent likely to have their own professional perception of some of the themes that the courses discuss. We expect this situation to create a process where the perspectives and approaches of computers and law are confronted with other disciplines' perspectives and approaches. If this meeting of disciplines is fertile, then seeds may germinate which, over a longer term, may contribute to a new discipline. Such a development, however, requires much more than yielding inter-disciplinary discussions. Just as important is the capability to establish research where new insights are gained and developed into holistic theories. In my view, we should thus have the ambition of creating a strong research environment. On the other hand, today's situation points first and foremost in the direction of a university section with its primary task being that of teaching/lecturing.
Our concept of lecturing is partly based on buying hours from the co-operating faculties. Lecturers and researchers from different disciplines will, in this way, be involved in arranging courses, in particular those directed towards the theses which are written. Through this they will also be confronted with the perspectives and approaches of the mandatory courses which are based on the computers and law field. On the one hand, this will create possibilities for these lecturers to take new ideas "home" and integrate new views in their own research work. Thus, other disciplines may be directly influenced by the post-graduate study of Information Technology and Administrative Systems. On the other hand, the participation of computer scientists, social scientists, analytic philosophers etc in the lecturing, will most likely enforce the influence from other disciplines on the mandatory courses, and help turn the computers and law basis of these courses into "administrative informatics" with its own identity.
To conclude this point, what we are sure of is that we are creating a new educational subject with the prime aim of lecturing/teaching. We hope that a strong research environment may be established, nourished by the discussions the lecturing will yield. We also hope that research and lecturing within other disciplines will learn from and be inspired by our activities. What we may dream of, is that these activities may develop into what will be identified as a new discipline. However, such a vision is, today, far beyond what may be planned.
In this article I have presented a new post-graduate study option. I have exemplified problems that will be subjects for teaching and research, and I have sketched some of the pedagogical challenges we are facing. However, we may be quite confident that the problems and challenges will change continuously, in the sense that the study option will never become something fixed. A university subject which we wish to place in the forefront of important societal developments, and which we thus place where the wind blows, must accept having the the pages of its' syllabus repeatedly blown away.