Digital helps Government reduce costs… really?

Digital helps Government reduce costs… really?

I find myself thinking about Government’s desire to reduce costs by ‘going digital.’

It’s as though the very notion of something being online instantly results in reduced effort and cost and provides a useful and usable service to Citizens. In recent years, Government has seen digital as a means of reducing ‘avoidable contact’ – that type of contact that Government might not have to have with its Citizens face-to-face or on the telephone if it could service them digitally.

It could rationalise this by saying that digital was a progressive means of servicing a society of such diversity, breadth and distance that face-to-face was no longer an appropriate medium to provide services. Of course this begs the issue of the ten million or so UK residents who do not have access to or use of the Internet.

So then you need to create programmes to get people onto the Internet – because ‘digital exclusion’ would be counter-productive to a progressively digital society – and mean the Government now had to maintain both digital and face-to-face services, not realising any savings at all.

In all of this, the main issue is one of an anticipated reduction in effort and cost to Government. Such a strategy would have to look at value over the:

  • Short term: The quick win solutions where Government can make information available to Citizens in low cost ways. This might include a slimmer, more efficient Directgov. It might encompass other efforts such as the data.gov.uk initiative, or even providing support to My Society, where a bit of investment could build on existing successful efforts to inform Citizens.
  • Mid term: Creation of a strategy that focuses on the development of smaller more agile services that address very niche audiences and provide for the development of simple, centralised security frameworks that would allow Government to roll out these services quickly and efficiently.
  • Long term: A revisit of all existing services, rating their effectiveness, rationalising them, and building them using user-centric methodologies that ensure they encompass the needs of the department and expectations of the users.

Of course, in evaluating the benefit of moving to digital, Government needs to be honest with itself about the amount of success it ‘allows’ users of digital services to have when using them.

For example, if a Government department responsible for providing a benefit to Citizens had a budget that could only pay that benefit to a percentage of all those who are eligible for it, would that department want to make the online application process quick and efficient, potentially resulting in over subscription to the benefit – or might it design something that is so complicated that only those with incredible patience and endurance might get through it?

In this particular instance, the issue is not about a choice to go digital – it is a strategic choice in how accessible you make the benefit. Under this circumstance you’d have to ask: is there any real benefit to going digital at all?

But allowing that not all services suffer from this potential complication, to realise some value from digital, Government needs to understand:

  • Does the service belong online? There should be an assessment as to whether the service solves a problem that Citizens need solving, making access to information or benefits useable and simple, beyond the current mechanism for doing so.
  • How big does the service need to be? Rule of thumb is that you should design the minimum amount required to complete the service or access the information – each incremental, low priority requirement built into the service reduces its chance of completion.
  • Is your project led by technology, departmental requirements, the needs of the users, or all of the above? The reality is that the larger and more complicated the service, the more likely it is to be technology driven – driving out the needs of the business and the users. You need to find balance to be successful. Delivering something doesn’t always equal success.
  • Can it be made simpler? Projects always get larger before they can be rationalised. Everyone’s requirements are thrown in, technology insinuates itself, stakeholders complicate things and somewhere along the way the end user has been forgotten – they are mentioned in meetings, and in people’s heads they believe they are representing the users, but in reality the complexity of the project has intervened and marginalised the people for whom it was originally intended.

Digital services will ultimately be accessible to all. We are in a period of transition from pre-Internet users to digital natives. In this interstice we have created a belief that it is ‘our duty’ to get everyone online so that they can experience the benefits that online has to offer.

I worry that Government forcing people online is not the answer – enabling can sometimes lead to bullying.

In a couple of generations this argument will have passed. Access to digital will be ubiquitous. All Government services will be made available online. And Citizens and Government will feel empowered to collaborate with one another to make this a better experience.

Really?