Electronic Document Production in Central Government

The project involved a five year field study of a central government organization to develop an understanding of their document production and related work practices. The last two years of the study focused on the introduction of networked, electronic document production technologies to a part of this organization. The project has been concerned to analyse the procurement strategies followed within central government with respect to document technologies, the usage to which such technologies are put and the factors which govern their success or failure. In particular, the study highlighted important organizational considerations which need to be taken account of when positioning networked, electronic document production technologies in central government work settings.

Document Production Technologies

The project employed social scientific methods (open ended interviews and field observation) to study the procurement and usage of networked electronic document production technologies. The network connected together approximately 20 workstations from the Apple Macintosh II (and later) ranges of personal machines. Printing resources and modem access were also provided. Electronic mail, bulletin board, computer conferencing, shared authoring, electronic dairy and other multi-user applications were installed alongside personal word processing, database and spreadsheet facilities. The intention of the network was that it should be used to support the document production practices of the two branches of the organization (and their respective management lines) which were connected together through its facilities.

However, the network encountered resistance from the central government personnel for whom these facilities had been provided. For example:

  • When the facilities of the network were incompatible with current practices, much effort was expended debating whether the technology should be rejected or current practices changed.
  • The overhead of putting existing documents into electronic form was often seen to exceed any potential benefit.
  • Users reported problems being kept aware of what was going on with the network. Some users did not trust the network and even started taking hard copies of all their communication.
  • The most senior civil servant on the network was continually 'on the move' and electronic documents did not suit the conditions where he would have to work on them (e.g. on crowded commuter trains or in transit between meetings).
  • Knowing that the most senior user preferred traditional paper documents, those who reported to him gained little benefit from the network in turn. Resistance to the network 'trickled down the line.'
  • Sharing information led to problems if one person altered another's information or more work had to be done to make privately developed databases understandable to those they were being shared with.
  • Electronic communication was found to lead to problems with respect to the oral and written culture of the Civil Service. Was email to be treated like a paper-based, written document or like conversation?
  • Some users were concerned that recording the discussion on computer conferences might enable later 'finger pointing' if a decision went wrong.
  • Maintaining the distinction between 'private' and 'public' work on the network proved problematic. For example, attempts to simulate line management through access controls were found offensive by senior management.

Ultimately, only routine electronic mail was used with any consistency. The more advanced tools for the support of electronic document production and collaborative working tended to be resisted. Close study of the Civil Servants using the network revealed a number of features which were important to the success or failure of electronic document technologies in such organizations. Many of these features concern the relationship between technologies and the bureaucratic form of traditional central government organizations. For example, the division of labour amongst those studied (different individuals had their distinct responsibilities) did not encourage information sharing or any technology which might support it. Similarly, line management reporting relations encouraged a 'need to know' culture for which many forms of electronic communication were inappropriate. In this way, this project has been able to make a contribution to our scientific understanding of the relationship between organizations, work practices and technology.

Customer Productivity

This project added to the knowledge that XRCE have of the relationship between organizations and innovative document technology. Although none of the technologies studied in the project were supplied by Xerox, it is important to know the kinds of issues which new document technologies raise in central government settings, especially when one recalls that British central government provides the largest set of customers of RXUK. The project, then, has informed us of the factors which are likely to influence the productivity of an important set of customers in using networked, collaborative document technologies. A follow up project to this one is concerned to transfer directly to RXUK our knowledge of the organizational factors that need to be taken into account when positioning new products intended for central government customers or anticipating their future needs. For details of this follow up project, a collaboration with RXUK, see Central Government Customer Profiling.


  • John Bowers


  • RXUK

Key Reports

  • J. M. Bowers (1994). The work to make a network work: Studying CSCW in action. In CSCW'94 - Proceedings of the fifth conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, November 1994, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA. New York: ACM Press.
  • J. M. Bowers and T. Rodden (1993). Exploding the interface: Experiences of a CSCW network. In InterCHI '93: Bridges Between Worlds - Proceedings of InterCHI '93, April 1993, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. New York: ACM Press.