Technology, work and alienation: A case study of a circuit court
Automation in industry and the resulting effects of worker alienation is a longstanding topic of scholarly inquiry. However, little research has studied the use of advanced technology in the public sector. This case study examines alienation in a computerized public-sector environment, specifically information processing and decision-making in a justice organization. Technology has influenced organizational change by widening and opening paths of communication and information flows. Desktop computing has provided individual employees with access to the power of mainframe computers. The workplace is potentially in rapid transition from the use of groupware, networking, artificial intelligence, voice recognition technology, and advances in imaging and graphics. Journalistic accounts are filled with reports of the need to reduce the national deficit by cutting spending and downsizing government agencies. For all public agencies, including justice, the incessant pressure to cut spending and overhead, while maintaining or increasing services, has been the driving force behind these agencies' efforts to improve their efficiency through computer-oriented work processes. The introduction of computer technology has been anticipated not only to reduce costs for the government, but also to result in a reskilling of the work force. What effect will this have on the individual workers? Is reskilling of the workplace a benefit to the worker or simply a high tech form of scientific management? This case study of a general sessions court investigates the introduction of modern technology into the court environment. It then ascertains whether it has a positive (personally empowering) effect on job satisfaction, social interaction, social stratification, and enhances personal control or power over their work day and product. It includes both survey research and in-depth interviews with 24 employees. The research hypothesis of this study is that imposed changes from a traditional-clerical to automated labor process offers affected workers a new sense of empowerment and status, and therefore, positively influenced the quality of worklife. This case study of worker attitudes in a metropolitan county circuit court offers a greater understanding of factors that influence the quality of worklife and may help to define models of organizational structures and divisions of labor possible only through the use of new technology. This case study may also serve as a tool for court administrators to help obtain the economic support needed to implement or purchase new technology by showing the benefits automation can bring to the legal process. Also, it demonstrates the importance of workplace decision-making and worker education/skill upgrading (including financial incentives) in the efficient application of new technologies.