OII SDP 2007 (XII): The Tools of Government in a Digital Age

Lead: Helen Margetts

What is the impact of the internet on public policy? How does it affect governments’ capacity to influence societal behaviour? One way of tackling this question is to break policy down into four constituent elements – the four ‘tools’ of government policy identified by Christopher Hood and Helen Margetts in their new book The Tools of Government in the Digital Age (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, building on Hood’s 1983 classic):
• nodality
• authority
• treasure
• organisation
The internet and other digital technologies have potential to impact government’s use of all of these tools, both through the use of such technologies by government itself and through societal trends in internet use, to which governments must respond. New webmetric techniques offer new potential for measuring the extent to which governments use the tools, particularly nodality. This approach can be used to explore general trends, such as the potential for the ‘sharpening’ of government’s tools through the use of technology to ‘group-target’ treatments (Hood and Margetts, 2007). Some authors have also hypothesised impacts specific to particular tools, such as increasing competition for nodality in the digital age (see Escher et al, 2006). Governments that respond to this competition will be well placed to maximise the potential of technological developments. Rapidly increasing use of so-called ‘Web 2.0’ applications, for example, could offer new potential for public policy change and for citizens to move into the ‘front-office’ of public policy design.

NATO: constituent elements of public policy

  • Nodality: the property of being at the centre of social and informational networks; being visible/connected in social and informational networks
  • Authority: the possession of legal or official power to demand, forbid, guarantee, adjudicate; legally able to command or prohibit
  • Treasure: the possession of a stock of money or exchangeable goods; able to exchange using money or other goods
  • Organisation: the possession of a stock of people with whatever skills they may have (soldiers, workers, bureaucrats), land, buildings, materials, computers and equipment, somehow arranged; the ability to act directly

Detectors are all the instruments government uses for taking in information.
Effectors are all the tools government can use to try to make an impact on the world outside

Power: resource-based accounts

What do actors use to get other actors do what they want?

  • information
  • reputation
  • money
  • legitimate authority
  • organisational capital

Nodality in the digital age

  • + new potential
  • + group targeted nodality is easier/cheaper
  • – greater competition for nodality
  • – search engines are gatekeepers

Experiments to test the “competitiveness” of government web sitesw: 56% answered with information from governmental sources in an open search, a minority from direct.gov.uk

Nodality in the digital age

Detectors doubling up as effectors

New tools?

  • New nodality – new competition
  • Narrow-cast government: rise in group-targeted treatments across all tools
  • tools run up agains individuals who: do not fit into digitally identifiable groups; circumvent
  • government digitally (e.g. false digital identities); choose no to /can’t play digital game
  • minimizing trouble, vexation, oppression on citizens

  • economizing on governmental effort – bringing citizens into front-office – “co-creation”

Measuring nodality

  • Visibility: is the site found?
  • Accessibility: are users directed to relevant information on site?
  • Navigability: can users find their way around the site
  • Extroversion: does the site point outwards to other sources
  • Competitiveness: does the site compete with other sites

My reflections

  • If search engines are gatekeepers: are RSS feeds “gatekeys”? not thrilling to subscribe toa govt. RSS feed ;) but might keep some gates open… and segmentation could be highly increased
  • Detectors doubling up as effectors: that’s a very interesting issue, as Web 2.0 technologies can have citizens act like governments, the like of prosumers (the raise of the govzen (government+citizen?)
  • local blogs (properly aggregated), wikis to explain in “plain English” regulations and what steps have people followed to achieve some administrative procedure, fora, etc.
  • maybe government information should not be in the middle of the citizenry life (nodality in a web 1.0 point of view) but, as it happens in the political blogosphere, just be the source font of information that the social network will then talk about and debate. In political debate in the blogosphere, The New York times is highly relevant, but it is not actually “nodal”, as people do not think of The New York times as the source of political debate. What about web 2.0 nodality? Detectors doubling up as effectors, but being this detectors/effectors not the government direct tools. Should presence on the Web be only measured by the institutional website impact? What about Government and procedure related tags?
  • Helen Margetts answers to these reflections stating (and I agree) that most Governments are really uncomfortable with the idea of losing some kind of power, of control, even if some others might even be eager to foster it. From her explanations, I wonder whether e-Democracy is easier to implant than e-Government, which somehow can be interpreted as it is easier to listen than to explain and engage.


Escher, T., Margetts, H., Petricek, V. & Cox, I. (2006). Governing from the Centre? Comparing the Nodality of Digital Governments. Prepared for delivery at the 2006 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association. Philadelphia: American Political Science Association. Retrieved July 10, 2007 from http://www.governmentontheweb.org/downloads/papers/Margetts_et_al_APSA_2006.pdf
Hood, C. C. & Margetts, H. (2007). The Tools of Government in the Digital Age. Basingstoke: Palgrave Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan.

More info


SDP 2007 related posts (2007)

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

Peña-López, I. (2007) “OII SDP 2007 (XII): The Tools of Government in a Digital Age” In ICTlogy, #46, July 2007. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
Retrieved month dd, yyyy from https://ictlogy.net/review/?p=577

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