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Opportunities and Dangers in the Development of NGO Information Systems

Next Step in Inter-organizational Relationships

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Part I of: Next Step in Inter-organizational Relationships. Notes on the problems associated with the current crisis in the relations between intergovernmental and nongovernmental bodies, with particular regard to the United Nations Specialized Agencies and the consultative status arrangement. Distributed by the Union of International Associations as UAI Study Papers ORG/1.

Rivalry

To what extent dp the following comments on UN Specialized Agencies and the UN system in the Jackson Report also apply to international non-governmental agencies and the NGO system ?

what exists today is inter-Agency rivalry for projects, each Agency insisting, almost as a matter of right, to get a slice of the country pie, regardless of the value and the propriety of the project from the country's point of view". " Often the information required is known to one or other parts of the UN development system but is not readily available, either because communication facilities are inadequate, or because it is "hoarded" by the Agency concerned."

" The mere description of the present structure for development cooperation identifies its major shortcomings : it is far too fragmented, and has large areas of overlap which create major problems of coordination and an unnecessary degree of bureaucratic complexity, ... the structure is hampering accomplishment of the programme's objective of providing effective development cooperation". " In short, there are now simply too many separate inconsistent, incomplete information systems relating to some facet of development cooperation activities ...".

A limitation of the Jackson Report, is the narrow focus on development at a time when this topic is now understood as intimately related to the problems of environmental pollution. The tendency to limit thinking in this way to a particular problem area in fact invites the rephrasing of one of the quotes . above to give

" Often the information required is known to one or other parts of the world system but is not readily available, either because communication facilities are inadequate, or because it is "hoarded" by the bodies concerned with one particular approach to, or aspect of, the complex of interacting world problems".

An NGO only exists because it has a special interest in a particular set of problems. At what point in the development of the NGO does this healthy special interest start to override the general interest to give a situation of "my NGO (or problem area) - right or wrong" ? This is not a very important problem when NGO projects are few and far between. It does become important when NGOs start building up "comprehensive" information systems - particularly those which make use of computers. It is then that overlap leads to wastage of carefully acquired resources.

Problems

Here are some problems which NGOs must collectively face in working out the kind of information systems they need, particularly in. the light of comments in the Jackson and SATCOM Reports :

  • how to build up their data bases in such a way they can be fed into a computer ;
  • how to divide up the potential users of the information so the system is efficiently used ;
  • how to divide up the potential sources of funds to support such information systems so that each system is adequately funded.

At the same time, NGOs must be concerned with :

  • conserving the resources of each system, to ensure its survival ; resources of the network of information systems, to ensure that the service as a whole is adequate on a cost/effectiveness basis ; total resources available, to avoid wastage of the limited funds - available for this type of undertaking;
  • avoiding unnecessary duplication and overlap ;
  • ensuring comprehensive rather than fragmented coverage ;
  • serving the maximum number of users with the maximum variety of purposes ;
  • avoiding confusion on the part of: -nongovernmental users; governmental users; faced with a multiplicity of services;
  • avoiding pestering the same bodies two or more times for the same information ;
  • -providing adequate security/privacy codes to prevent abuse of the data stored ;
  • -providing a comprehensive picture of projects and programmes underway ;
  • preparing for the near future in which computer files of all such data banks will be linked, and data is transferred automatically from one to the other according to a programmed "arrangment" between the different parties.

These are very real problems. Many of them also arise in the case of commercial data banks, but there is an added twist in the case of nonprofit data banks. The nonprofit information systems are supposedly created to supplement one another and not to compete. And yet in order to survive each is forced to "hoard" information to increase the relative quality of the service it has to offer, just as with the (nonprofit) UN Agency information services. There is an extra turn to the twist in that usually one of the objectives of the responsible NGOs is to make available information at minimum cost, and yet it is clearly in its interest to raise the cost of such information to other NGOs which possess their own data banks.

It is these problems which will govern the rise and fall of NGO information services over the next 10-15 years. NGOs can either take the view that their own field of interest is too specialized to warrant collaboration with more general data banks, in which case their information functions will be swept into the mawof commercial or government data networks and the NGO will fall by the wayside, or else they can actively investigate methods of organizing, financing and controlling nongovernmental, nonprofit collective information services

Solution

The key to the provision of such a collective NGO information system is the development of a system which permits each NGO to view its part of the system as the most important (other parts merely being "subsets"), whilst at the same time ensuring that this necessary conceptual distortion does not either result in a permanent distortion of the relationship between the constituent parts, or in repeated inclusion of items of information in overlapping areas of interest. Thus while each NGO could think/in terms of "its own" part of the data bank (and it would indeed have proprietorial rights and responsibilities), the computer would, whilst permitting such a distinction if necessary, meld the different items of data together into their most useful form for collective use of the information system by the participating NGOs.

There is clearly a saving for all in the systems design. NGOs would acquire the advantages of a sophisticated system, and the cost of using the system is greatly reduced due to the increase in the number of users. What is being suggested is really the need to dissociate conceptually the computer level from the organizations which own or use parts of the data bank - at this level there is unity and integration. At the organization level, the NGO owners and users can be as disunited as they feel to be necessary - linked only by procedural and data input standards.

A collective NGO information system of this kind would also facilitate contact between IGOs and NGOs at the data exchange level, since the political implications of such contact would be lessened. An approach of this kind could prove a real breakthrough. NGOs could use this form of common service, optimizing their overall contribution, but avoiding all the terrible problems - apparently insoluble except on a limited scale - of personalities, status and recognition, and differences of opinion on organization procedure and matters of substance. The scheme is quite practical technically and financially, and does not require a large initial pool of committed users. This sort of approach could place NGOs in a position of strength in the face of the impressive information systems now being planned and implemented by commercial interests and government agencies. (see also Appendix II)

Viable collection systems

Given the desirability of organizational information as argued above, how is such information to be collected, made available and updated ?

The information systems on organizations which are currently planned or in operation at the international level possess one or more of the following objectives :

System-centered (i.e. created in the interest of the "owner" of the information system)

  • to influence bodies on which information is collected for the collector's purposes (e.g. propaganda/publicity systems)
  • to keep informed about bodies on which information is collected for the collector's purposes (e.g. planning/market research systems)
  • to analyze bodies on which information is collected for the collector's purposes (e.g. academic research systems)

Body-centered (i.e. created in the interest of the bodies registered in, and using, the information system)

  • to facilitate coordination between bodies on which information is collected for their mutual benefit (e.g. information services)
  • to publicize the activities of bodies on which information is collected (e.g. cooperative dissemination systems)
  • to provide bodies incorporated into the system with a means of furthering their objectives more effectively (e.g. cooperative information services)

Such systems are faced with the fallowing major problems to a different degree depending upon the mix of their objectives :

  • location and collection of data (namely the problems of producing reasons to justify the expenditure of time and effort by the bodies supplying the information) ;
  • updating the information (namely the problem of guaranteeing a continuing supply of information from the same sources) in the presence of similar time-consuming demands from other sources financing the collection of information and operation of the system ;
  • protection of the confidential information supplied (namely the problem of making available selected parts of the data to categories of users in a manner defined, ideally, by the body supplying the information) ;
  • protection of the "data assets" and to some extent the identity of different collecting bodies which integrate their information systems to increase combined effectiveness.

System-centered information systems are typically easy to justify to fund sources (e.g. a corporation's public relations program) and in many cases may be tied into short-term programs (whether the "one-off" research program of a university or of some international program-oriented body such as Unesco). They suffer from the disadvantage that the arguments used to justify collection of the information may have considerably less significance in the working environment of the bodies supplying the information. This reduces willingness to supply the information, particularly on a continuing basis, and increases suspicion as to the ends to which it is to be put in the particular country where it is being collected,

Body-centered systems can be justified to the bodies in question which are prepared to supply the data but are typically difficult to justify to potential sources of funds, even the bodies themselves, sines specialized program mandates cannot be broadened to justify allocation of funds to the construction or operation of generalized information systems. Such systems are susceptible to inter-body disputes.

The principal problems of these two types of systems could however balance one another out if a hybrid multi-purpose system was developed to be of use both to the bodies incorporated in it and to others wishing to contact, influence or study those bodies. A system of this type would not only solve the practical problem of information collection bat mould in itself represent a significant step towards functional integration. A direct consequence of the creation of unrelated systems to handle research, planning, public information, education, program administration information needs is that insights or problems arising in one area are not evident to bodies concerned with other areas. Any new research insight concerning the world system should rapidly affect policymaking, education, public information, etc. Developments in each functional area must increasingly mesh smoothly together and reinforce one another instead of proceeding in leaps and starts. Information systems constitute the nervous system of planetary society. The fragmented approach to their design and use would seem to lead directly to social crises analogues to those found in the case of certain disorders of the nervous system, as though the world system was some organizational dinosaur suffering from spastic paralysis or aphasia. Integrated development can only be achieved if the information system is designed for multi-purpose use.

Realism suggests that no significant change will be made in the existing approach. It is also extremely doubtful whether a centralized information clearing house is desirable, or practical in political or economic terms. It is however possible to envisage an information system which avoids the problems noted above.

The type of world-wide, low-cost information system which is now practical, and could be most beneficial for developing countries, is described in Appendix II. A similar system could be designed to fulfill the more limited requirements of :

  • a consultative status NGO information system
  • an NGO information system
  • an NGO-UN Agency information system
  • or any more broader grouping.

It is interesting to note that ECOSOC has recently proposed the establishment of an International Computing Centre in Geneva to help to resolve the incompatibilities in the UN Agency information systems. Initial users would be UN, UNDP and WHO. Perhaps the design of the programs could take into account the requirements of not only IGO to NGO information (e.g. UN public information systems) but also NGO to IGO, NGO to NGO, and NGO to public, information systems.


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