Project Report

My doctoral research in applied cultural applied has focused on developing a working model for online government (e-government) program evaluation by drawing upon Cultural Domain Analysis (CDA). The antecedents of CDA can be traced earliest to cognitive psychology and later to cognitive anthropology (D'Andrade 1995). U.S. anthropologists developed CDA by using linguistic techniques to identify research participants’ "semantic domain" or mental groupings of knowledge (D'Andrade 1984; Erickson 2001; Goodenough 1956). The assumption driving CDA is that, across cultures, people develop mental categories of what they know or learn (Borgatti 1999), and learning and sharing are characteristics of culture. CDA is an approach to understanding how the perceptions of groups of people relate to one another by discerning how they articulate categories of a particular subject area (Borgatti 1994). For example, if research participants identified the wording of an e-government application as confusing and also stated that it is difficult to retrieve a password if its forgotten, then both of these statements could be classified under the category of "design." That is, design of the website and the application process overall. I used CDA to develop a working model for evaluating people’s experiences with an e-government welfare program using public computers in Florida libraries and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). I then applied the model to Australians frequenting NGOs to apply for a similar e-government program, known as "Centrelink." I found nearly all of the categories uttered by the Australian research participants overlapped with the categories spoken by their Florida counterparts. Even though it is preliminary, this suggests that there is cross-cultural potential for the validity of the model. This is the first major outcome of my research. The second determination I made from my research is more philosophical. If we are to understand the way research informs policy-making and evaluation of e-government programs, then we must know how public officials conceive of technology. There is a continuum along which their conceptions of technology fall. At one end, technology is an instrument capable of upholding democratic values, ensuring that everyone who is legally entitled can access services online. At the other, it is a cost-saving device to reduce the number of local government offices and employees who serve the public. The Australian approach to designing e-government programs (in the context of Centrelink) appears to conceptualize technology as a tool to extend the reach of assistance offered by the government, rather than replacing it. For example, there are ample services for people who are non-native English speakers; the website is accessible in over a dozen languages and translators are readily available over the phone. People with various disabilities can seek assistance over the phone as well and even online: a button situated in the same place on each Centrelink website will read all the information on the page to an applicant. In all these scenarios, however, assistance is also still available in person at local Centrelink offices. Though residents of some rural Australian towns may drive considerable distances to find a Centrelink office, these offices populate cities, including Melbourne. Comparatively, Florida seems to take a cost-reduction view of technology. The state closed more than 40 percent of its offices, and those that remained open do not have a policy of answering specific questions about people’s application (Lange 2009; USDA 2008). Instead, they direct applicants to call a toll free number for assistance. While Spanish and Creole are offered as alternative languages to complete the online application and Spanish speakers are available over the telephone, there is no concerted effort to broadcast the availability of assistance to other non-English speaking populations or to those with disabilities. If technology is to be a substitute for in-person assistance, it must be deployed and publicized much more systematically, anticipating and meeting clients’ challenges. Ultimately, designing and evaluating e-government services should be about ensuring that all those who are legally entitled have access to them. My research reveals that a two-pronged approach may facilitate this outcome. First, those responsible for e-government program design and evaluation should be cognizant of their approach to technology and the particular opportunities and limits this entails. Second, the state and federal government agencies should reconsider the existing model of targeting the "average" user and instead recognize the evidence that designing for the needs of historically marginalized populations can make access easier for the overall population. Doing so upholds the democratic values articulated by governments worldwide, including the United States (International Telecommunications Union 2011) to ensure everyone who is entitled to services can access them. Additionally, concentrating on these populations is also based on one of the "universal principles of design," namely, that what they find accessible can also be accessible to the majority of the population (Lidwell, et al. 2010:16-17). It is encouraging "design for democracy" (Lausen 2007).

Agency
National Science Foundation (NSF)
Institute
Office of International and Integrative Activities (IIA)
Application #
1107538
Program Officer
Carter Kimsey
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
2011-06-01
Budget End
2012-05-31
Support Year
Fiscal Year
2011
Total Cost
$5,700
Indirect Cost
Name
Hebert Marc K
Department
Type
DUNS #
City
Tampa
State
FL
Country
United States
Zip Code
33620