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Introduction

Globalization presents important opportunities and difficult challenges that demand internationally-trained, culturally-aware researchers to collaborate on topics that cross borders, political systems, and cultures. International research collaborations on topics such as livability of cities, regulation of world financial markets, political participation, or the health of civil society offer potentially great benefit, but such work generally remains sporadic and informal because it is logistically and financially impractical.

Our own field of digital government (DG) is a case in point. The field is particularly fertile ground for international work – it is relatively young and small, but growing, diverse, and global. Because DG research involves scholars from computer and information sciences plus social and behavioral sciences, it already represents the different disciplines needed to investigate complex sociotechnical questions regarding information, technology, and governance. However, few institutional support mechanisms encourage joint or coordinated work among researchers from different countries. International collaborations generally remain informal because it is logistically and financially difficult to craft integrated research proposals to support diverse teams in coordinated work. The separate funding and support programs that exist in different countries are diffi cult or impossible to harmonize into sustained collaborative efforts. As a result, while the potential benefi t of integrated international research partnerships is high, their practical feasibility for both investigators and sponsors is low.

This is unfortunate because the benefits of research collaboration are well known: shared knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques; cross-fertilization of ideas; and the potential to tackle complex multi-dimensional problems. The promise of comparative and transnational studies to deliver these benefits is substantial and the need to infuse global awareness among research professionals is undeniable. However, entrée to signifi cant and sustainable international collaboration is usually beyond the reach of individual scholars. Occasionally individuals are well-integrated into research projects at foreign institutions, but more often they are “visitors” who work or study in parallel with their hosts. To do more typically demands extensive time commitments, relocations, well-funded research grants, and formal institutional support

Digital government research already represents the different disciplines needed to investigate complex socio-technical questions. However, few institutional support mechanisms encourage joint or coordinated work among researchers from different countries.

For doctoral students and junior investigators, the prospects for serious engagement in international research are even more difficult. Universities try to provide international exposure through enhanced curricula and inclusion of global concerns in their missions. However, these efforts are generally focused on individual students and tend to be confi ned to standard course work or are organized around individual commitments to live for an extended period in another country. For example, graduate students may have the opportunity to work for a summer or semester under the supervision of an international colleague of their home mentor. In some fi elds, organized programs bring a group of students to live and work for one or two months in an international site. However, these programs are costly, usually involve students from the same university, and demand a substantial time commitment that many students cannot make.

As a leader in the international digital government research community, the Center for Technology in Government (CTG) has become an advocate and catalyst for connections that foster international research and promote global awareness in our fi eld. Our own experiences in the international research arena, summarized below, demonstrate the challenges and limitations of existing practices.

Coordinating seperately funded projects aimed at a shared question. In the late 1990s we partnered with separately funded research colleagues in Canada and Western Europe to investigate and compare “new models of collaboration” to design and deliver government services. The partners already had working relationships, were well-funded by different research sponsors in three countries, had bi-lingual members, and followed a shared protocol for data collection and analysis. However, the funding was available in different time periods and under different conditions that prevented us from designing the project together or releasing the results uniformly. Instead, one group produced the design and methodology and the others adapted to it. Not all data could be shared among the researchers and while most case studies could be published, others could not. The Canadian partners were able to meet periodically with the US and European partners, but all three groups were never able to meet in the same place. While the overall project produced valuable results, the comparative analysis at the end of the project also revealed that language differences had led to basic misunderstandings about key concepts that would have been avoided if we had been able to work together from the beginning.

Linking projects-in-progress. A second experience focused on cross-boundary information sharing and integration was made possible by a one-time matching process between projects funded separately by the European Commission’s FP6 Research Framework and the National Science Foundation Information Technology Research Program. In this case, no prior relationships existed. Instead, US investigators reached out to European counterparts based on descriptions of the EC-funded projects. When a promising match was made, NSF gave a supplemental grant of about $100,000 to the US partner, but the European partner received no additional funds. All projects were well advanced at the time of the international linkage. Little could be done to adjust funding or work plans for the European teams. Consequently, because opportunities to fully engage were very limited and contributions and commitments were quite unbalanced, the partnership goals were diffi cult to achieve. An independent assessment of the program emphasized several structural problems including the fact that the two funding institutions support research for somewhat different reasons, tend to encourage proposals of different size and scope, fund them for different periods of time, and apply different rules and restrictions to project budgets.

iGov Students in the Hauge and Delft
Students at iGov Research Institute in The Hague and Delft, The Netherlands, July 18-25, 2010.
Adding researchers to an already-defined international project. Later, thanks to a travel-only NSF grant, we were able to contribute to a second EC-sponsored project to create a research roadmap for alternative futures for e-government. The travel funds allowed us to participate in a series of extended partnership meetings in Europe throughout the project, to contribute a US-based perspective to the whole effort, and to benefit from a study that looked beyond most of the work going on in the US at the time. However, the European consortium had already fully defi ned the project when we joined and without funds for salaries, we could engage fully in the research effort only when it also addressed questions we were already working on in other initiatives.

Each of these experiences brought us in close contact with potential colleagues in other countries who were investigating the same kinds of questions that interested us. We understood the value of international collaboration for our respective research agendas and for our fi eld as a whole. However, the results were decidedly mixed. We built social and scientific capital through personal and intellectual exchanges that deepened our expertise and knowledge as well as our appreciation for cultural factors in all of our work. However, we were all frustrated by mismatched time frames, uneven resources, different sponsor expectations, and geographic, language, and cultural distances that could not effectively be bridged given the formal structures of the arrangements. The potential benefi ts of these engagements were clear, but the costs and barriers to attain them were formidable. As a consequence we set out to learn how the benefi ts of these partnerships could be made more feasible, affordable, and sustainable, given the strong institutional forces that inadvertently work against them.

Finding New Pathways to International Research Collaboration

Over the past five years, a grant from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) [Grant# IIS-0540069] allowed us to experiment with two approaches to help both established researchers and junior scholars enter the world of international collaboration. We aimed these efforts in the area between large institutionled programs and diffuse individual initiatives to try to achieve similar goals (i.e., multi-cultural awareness, research on globally important questions, effective international collaboration, and professional network building) but without their main drawbacks (i.e., high individual or organizational barriers to entry, high cost, conflicting business models and rules, and lack of supporting social structures). Therefore , we focused on providing modest incentives to self-defined small groups to build interest, capability, and networks of relationships that would lead to long-lasting capacity to tackle international and cross-cultural problems – in short, to foster an international community of researchers with the motivation and capabilities to undertake jointly signifi cant international work. While the results come from the fi eld of digital government, we believe they are equally valid for any discipline and have special benefits in socio-technical fi elds like management and public health where, like DG, the social context of a problem plays a crucial role in understanding it.

From 2007 through 2010, we tested two innovative approaches to international research collaboration. We sought low-cost starting points or “on-ramps” to sustainable networks within the international community of scholars. The first approach was a set of three international working groups composed of scholars from a variety of countries and disciplines focusing together on essential questions of public governance, North American cooperation, and early crisis detection. The second approach was an annual, residential research institute for PhD students designed to encourage young scholars to develop an appreciation at the beginning of their careers for the global impact of information and communication technologies on the public sector.

The Working Group strategy provided modest incentives to self-defined small groups to build interest, capability, and relationships to tackle international and cross-cultural problems – in short, to foster a motivated community of researchers to jointly undertake significant international work.

International working groups

The working groups had three aims: to encourage interest in international research topics in our field, to do so through self-organizing teams of scholars from different countries who would have enough time and opportunity to build a strong network of relationships across disciplines, nationalities, and locations; and to support this teambuilding process through a very limited set of incentives and requirements. Research on collaboration across distributed groups shows that active coordination, frequent direct communication, and face-to-face encounters are hallmarks of success. Our own experiences demonstrated the importance of planning and defi ning goals together as essential preconditions to actually working together. Accordingly, we designed and launched a competitive solicitation for time-limited international working groups that addressed these critical success factors. The solicitation gave proposers complete freedom to choose topics and participants, but also included seven specific requirements for structural, management, and implementation components.

INTERNATIONAL DIGITAL GOVERNMENT WORKING GROUPS

Online Consultation and Public Policy Making
17 members from France, Israel, Italy, United Kingdom, and US
This group focused on ways to evaluate the policy and other social impacts of online citizen consultation initiatives aimed at infl uencing actual government decision making including how such initiatives are affected by cultural, social, legal and institutional contexts. Of particular interest was the ways in which legal, political and institutional context shape prospects for success. Disciplines included law, political science, public administration, information technology, and communication.

North American Digital Government Working Group (NADGWG)
20 members from Canada, Mexico, and US
NADGWG focused on how to advance research across the geographic and political boundaries of North America. In addition to its aim to create a North American research agenda, NADGWG organized two topical subgroups. One to understand the information sharing and interoperability challenges faced by government agencies in the border regions. The other explored full-information product pricing and the roles of government policy, trust, and information and communication technologies in North American distribution networks for goods such as organic and fair trade food. Disciplines represented included public administration, informatics, management, and computer science

Digital Governance and Hotspot Geoinformatics
54 members from China, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, and US
The Geoinformatics Hotspot Working Group focused on developing a prototype surveillance system that relies on advanced software and statistical techniques to detect emerging crises. The group’s expertise was mainly focused on the practical challenges of watershed management in rural India where it involved not only university faculty and students but also public officials and civil society organizations. Disciplines included statistics, computer science, public health, forestry, and public administration.

Each Proposal was required to:
  • identify an international topic, problem, or domain and explain its relevance for digital government research;
  • identify an international group of members drawn from senior and junior ranks as well as graduate students and, where appropriate to the topic, practitioners;
  • name co-chairs from the US and at least one other country;
  • describe specific plans for coordination, outlining how participants would communicate and cooperate across distances as well as how they would manage themselves as a distributed community of scholars;
  • plan five face-to-face meetings over a three-year period;
  • include a plan for periodic public presentations of progress and annual reports; and
  • demonstrate that all participants had the support of their institutions for professional time, travel costs of non-US participants, and other resources to help achieve their goals.
Thirteen proposals were received and put through a blind peer review process involving an international and multidisciplinary group of more than 30 reviewers. Three were selected and each was awarded access to modest travel support ranging from $62,000 to $76,000. Because the funds were provided by NSF, a US federal government agency, they could be used to support only participants from US institutions.

iGov Research Institute

By contrast to the working group experiment in which the same three groups of senior and junior scholars worked together over three years, the iGov Institute experiment (http://www.ctg.albany.edu/institute) was an immersive experience in international engagement for successive cohorts of doctoral students. Its main goals were to create social capital among the students and faculty as the basis for long-term professional relationships, to simulate the challenges and benefits of multi-disciplinary international research through small group projects, and to emphasize the importance of social, political, and cultural context in digital government research.

Each year, a competitively selected group of about 20 students came from universities and countries around the world to live and work together with international faculty in an intensive week-long residential program. Each year, the program was held in a different city, which was not only the physical location, but the substantive context for the experience. The city context was an essential part of the design. The Institute created in one place a crossroads of cultures, political systems, and scientifi c disciplines where participants were able to interact with specifi c public sector leaders and the pressing public policy and management problems they faced in their community.

In New York City in 2007 we explored the theme of city management. In Manchester in 2008 the topic was urban regeneration. The focus in Seattle in 2009 was innovation and quality of life and in 2010, in the Netherlands, we explored the relationships among local, national, and international government institutions. These focal themes were chosen because of their particular importance in each locale and becuase they are also widely shared by cities and regions around the world. This deliberate grounding in a real place and its government was a way of focusing the diversity of the student group on a shared experience.

iGov brochure
iGov Research Institute
In New York City in 2007 we explored the theme of city management. In Manchester in 2008 the topic was urban regeneration. The focus in Seattle in 2009 was innovation and quality of life and in 2010, in the Netherlands, we explored the relationships among local, national, and international government institutions. These focal themes were chosen because of their particular importance in each locale and becuase they are also widely shared by cities and regions around the world. This deliberate grounding in a real place and its government was a way of focusing the diversity of the student group on a shared experience.

The main programmatic elements included a suite of reinforcing features, including:
  • engagement with leading scholars in the fi eld through lectures and in-depth discussions;
  • direct interaction with public sector leaders through field-based activities and discussions with elected officials, government managers, and community organizers;
  • faculty lectures about digital government as a research field, the connection between research and practice, and value-sensitive design and other collaborative methodologies for digital government research and development;
  • small group projects designed to explore ways to work in multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural research teams;
  • opportunities for students to present their own developing research ideas for feedback and discussion; and
  • one-on-one time with faculty and formal and informal networking activities designed to build both personal and professional relationships.

Grounding the iGov Institute in a real place and its government focused the diversity of the iGov students on a shared experience.

The NSF grant provided for a program director and staff plus small faculty stipends. Housing, meals, local transportation, and materials were provided for all students and faculty; needs-based travel support was available for students enrolled at US institutions. The full program cost varied by location but, after adjusting for start up design costs, it averaged about US $4000 per individual. Each student cohort numbered between 14 and 22 students, representing 8 to 15 countries and six to eight different disciplines. The Institute director, program staff, and three senior faculty provided intellectual continuity for the program from year to year. Beginning in 2008 (the second year of the program), the faculty team was enlarged by three junior faculty who were invited from the previous year’s cohort. While all faculty were involved throughout the program, the junior faculty had a special role as mentors for the student working groups.

1st NYC iGov
Students at the first iGov Institute held in New York City during July of 2008, continue discussions with iGov faculty member Alan Borning (far left), professor of computer science, University of Washington

Table 1
Table 1