Centralization vs. decentralitacion in Government and Education

I have recently been involved in both a project on citizen participation and participation at the University. Not surprisingly — to me at least — both projects share much more than what they differ on. Indeed, they both share a very similar infrastructure:

  • They are both initiatives of the public sector (in Spain, private Universities are really a minority).
  • They both provide core services that have a central source and whose reliability is based on the legitimacy of that source.
  • They both address a large community that is interested not only in getting those services, but in participating in their design, including the transparency and accountability of the whole process.

The central source and need to certify the information generally goes in the opposite direction of participatory design and engagement. The former asks, naturally for centralization, the latter for decentralization.

The fall of transaction and replication costs (the two big constrains of the industrial revolution) make it possible to separate management from participation. It’s like if you could have a football game being played in every player’s living room while still being able to have a game and keep an up-to-date scoreboard and stats.

But, as said, centralization attracts both management and activity to your own platform (the learning management system, the government’s portal), while participation centrifuges activity out to social networking sites.

Simplifying things to the max, my landscape now looks more or less like this (please understand Management in a non-restrictive way):

Education
Participation in own platform Participation in alien platforms
Management in own paltform

Centralized in-house Learning Management System
(I)

Core Virtual Learning Environment
+
Aggregator / open API
+
PKE (PLE, PRP) Constellation
(II)

Management in alien platform One stop shop
+
Custom Cloud Services
(III)
Social Networking Sites Constellation
+
Distributed/diffuse institutional identity
(IV)
Government
Participation in own platform Participation in alien platforms
Management in own paltform Government Portal
(I)
Core Public Services
+
Open data repositories/sources
+
Citizen initiatives
(II)
Management in alien platform One stop shop
+
Custom Cloud Services
(III)
Social Networking Sites Constellation
+
Distributed/diffuse institutional identity
(IV)

In my opinion, there is enough evidence that centralization of participation will not work any more. Education is asking for an increasing de-institutionalization and government portals won’t get any participation just because they were built. This leaves out cases I and III as possible approaches to create strategies that try to match management with participation.

The problem with case IV is obvious to me and is about the risks of Cloud Computing which, again simplifying, are twofold:

  1. The risks of security and ownership, which are still to be fully addressed and fixed by cloud service providers, and which a public service just cannot afford to leave unattended;
  2. and the blurring of the institutional identity, which undermines the main asset of a public institution: legitimacy.

I thus advocate for a mixed solution of keeping your main assets centralized while externalizing all the participatory side (see case II):

  • The core value stays “home”: data of the students, syllabuses, data from the government, government plans…;
  • Centralized, the core information is legit, certified;
  • A centralized management is compatible with a decentralized access: open API and open data provide gateways so that access can be remote but management of data still be centralized, secure, private;
  • Your staff has to develop skills to outreach your target while focussing on management, which is your core;
  • Your staff has to develop skills to monitor and even capitalize what’s happening outside of your platform, but without needing to interfere in off-core activity;
  • Participation is not mediated by management needs or management staff, can freely emerge, and can do it where it pleases.
  • And, most important, participation has the fuel to fully engage with all the information possible;
  • If communication and information channels are open and work in two-ways, the (virtuous?) circle closes and the cycle starts again.

In my Predictions for Social Media in 2010 I revisited the importance of the ePortfolio and the institutional website. As I there said, I plead for the construction of the (e-)portfolio, for a return to the personal or institutional website, using social media as a game of mirrors that reflects us where we should also be present.

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2010) “Centralization vs. decentralitacion in Government and Education” In ICTlogy, #78, March 2010. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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