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Research Project:
Urban Information Systems

 project | papers

RESEARCHERS: Kenneth L. Kraemer, James Danziger, Rob Kling, John King, James Perry, Dutton, Alana Northrop, Debora Dunkle

During the 1970's and 1980's, CRITO researchers worked on a series of major NSF funded projects totaling around $5 million and titled "Evaluation of Urban Information Systems in Local Government" (URBIS). The purpose was to assess the level of computing in U.S. cities and counties and to evaluate the patterns of diffusion, the impacts on delivery of local government services, management decision-making and worker’s quality of life. The project started with a review of existing research, and defined areas that needed research. In 1975 and 1985, a census of larger cities and counties were surveyed regarding information systems capabilities, uses and impacts. In 1976, and again in 1986, a subset of cities were selected for more intensive study of computing impacts on key business processes, including traffic ticket processing, detective investigation, patrol allocation, budget reporting, and management-oriented computing. Finally, the data on U.S. cities was compared with similar data from major European cities.

The heart of the research was to systematically examine a number of claims about computing. First was Leavitt and Whisler’s thesis that IT would result in massive elimination of middle managers. The results showed that generally, the number of middle managers had not been reduced. In fact, in cities with strong economies and where computing decisions were left to middle managers, the number of middle managers increased — because these managers continually found new uses for computers that justified their roles.

Second, Herbert Simon had speculated that computers were an apolitical technology for improving the rationality of decision making and efficiency in organizations. The research showed that computing was highly political, both in terms of struggles over who would control this new resource and how it would be used, which together determined who would benefit most. Computer use reinforced the existing political and administrative structure and distribution of benefits.

Third was the claim in the news media that computing dehumanized work. In contrast to the reporting, a systematic survey of local government workers found that all levels of city employees were positive about the use of IT in their work. In particular, they felt that computing led to greater productivity and a sense of accomplishment.

The results of these studies were reported in five books, including Computers and Local Government, Technological Innovation in American Local Governments, The Management of Information Systems, Computers and Politics and People and Computers, and numerous articles in premier academic journals such as Public Administration Review, Administration and Society, Telecommunications Policy, Management Science, MIS Quarterly and The International Review of Administrative Sciences.