It’s like Uber but for the Social Contract

Governments throughout the Anglosphere have begun talking about ‘Digital First’ or ‘Digital by Default’ in the last couple of years. In 2012 President Obama launched the US Roadmap for Digital Government. The Cameron government in the UK launched the Government Digital Office in 2011 with the intention of delivering ‘digital by default’ government services. Here in Australia, Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull is a big proponent of this idea, launching the Digital Transformation Office a few weeks ago. Turnbull delights in visiting startup incubators to deliver soliloquies about how Government needs to become more responsive and support tech companies. The big idea of Digital by Default though, is that government departments should assume that the way people want to access information and services is online, with other channels a secondary consideration. In many ways this is a bit of a no-brainer; but there’s a catch. The great danger of digital first government is not that it will fail, but in how it measures success.

A concept that has become de rigeur in the software startup world is ‘user centred design’. This approach seeks to arrange the system around the needs and desires of the user, rather than forcing the user to adapt to the requirements of the system. If you’re thinking that sounds like the opposite of most interactions with government, you’re not alone. Indeed, virtually the first thing the Australian Government’s new Digital Transformation Office has done is release a Digital Service Standard for government departments, focussed on making their services user-centred. This is the first step governments need to understand when becoming ‘Digital by Default’. Unless the design of government services is ‘user centred’[1], digitising their delivery won’t make a whole lot of difference.

An example of this is eTax, the ATO’s software program introduced in 1999. eTax was only available for Windows PCs until 2013, and replicated the paper ‘Tax Pack’ forms. It was always clunky, and when a version for Macs was finally released in 2013, it was buggy and confusing to install. eTax may have been digital, but it certainly wasn’t a joy to use. Last year an alternative, in-browser system, MyTax, was finally introduced. MyTax is considerably easier to use, though the authentication process is still cumbersome, and last year it was only available for those with straightforward financial arrangements.

Reducing costs ...by passing them on to you

eTax did, at least, have the virtue of maintaining more or less the same usability of the paper Tax Pack. Other moves from State and Federal government to go digital have actually reduced usability. The Victorian Government annually publishes the Directory of Victorian Public Libraries. Until around 2008 this was produced and distributed in hard copy to all public libraries in the state. Then, the State Government suddenly discovered a desire to ‘reduce our environmental impact’ and announced that henceforth the Directory would be ‘published online’. What this means in practice is nine PDF files posted to an obscure web page. Of course, the only reason to publish something in PDF is if you want to retain the formatting so as to enable someone to print it out. Not exactly reducing paper use. Needless to say, the user experience of clicking and searching through nine PDF files rather than flicking to the dog-eared and specially coloured page in a hardcopy is significantly poorer.

The fate of the Directory of Victorian Public Libraries exemplifies what happens when governments go ‘digital by default’ for the wrong reason. It’s transparently the case that the Directory is ‘published’ as nine separate PDFs instead of one hardcopy because the State Government wants to pass on the printing costs to local Councils and library corporations. If the goal was to digitise in order to provide better service, it would have been turned into a searchable database.

This is how ‘digital by default’ currently works in Australian government. The goal is simply to reduce government overheads by passing the cost of production down the line. It’s Uber for Government. Just as Uber requires workers to provide and service their own vehicle, Government is looking to require citizens to BYO internet connection or smartphone in order to receive services. But this excludes those who need government support the most. Just as Uber simply ignores laws that it finds inconvenient, Digital by Default government aimed solely at reducing costs ignores citizens it finds inconvenient. Not only does this break the implicit rules of social democracy, it misunderstands the nature of many government services.

Friction

What we call reducing bureaucracy in government, increasing productivity in business, and removing friction in the app economy are all more or less the same thing - removing as many human interactions as possible. This might save money, but if you’re providing a service rather than a product it is very easy to take it past the point where service quality starts to diminish. Digital be Default needs to be squarely aimed at improving the quality of government services, rather than a way to treat Baumol’s cost disease. RFID in libraries is a good example of this. Library services focussed on reducing costs and becoming more efficient have introduced RFID as a way to reduce staff. Library services focussed on high quality service have introduced RFID in conjunction with new service models centred on interactions rather than transactions - retaining staff numbers but giving them more time to provide quality advice and experiences instead of merely transactions. Public libraries have always been more than mere book repositories. For many people, libraries are a place of refuge from a depressing and hostile world - a rare place with familiar faces and patient interlocutors. This is, as they say, a feature, not a bug.

Digital by Default must not lose sight of some of the positive outcomes from current government service provision. Whether we’re talking about food safety permits for restaurants, talking to real humans in public libraries, or minimum manufacturing standards for car brakes, it’s important to remember why we designed things that way in the first place. Sometimes when there’s no friction, people die.

Perspective

Turnbull, Cameron and Obama are all very rich white men in positions of power, but you merely need to be comfortably middle class to lose perspective. The same people who think public libraries were obsoleted by Google now call for all Government interactions to be appified, digitised and vaporised. Who wants to use the phone or go in and talk to a person anyway? People without your privilege - that’s who. The elderly, the illiterate, those without an internet connection and those who have simply run over their data limit for the month, people with complex combinations of needs that your software developer didn’t anticipate: these are the people who need to sit down with a real person. Seen from this angle, Digital by Default government - far from empowering citizens - breaks the very bonds that created social democracy in the first place.

So Digital by Default - sure, bring it on, people like me will love it. But your solution has to account for those who don’t or can’t love it, in a meaningful way that isn’t simply shoving them over to their local library to deal with (as so many state and federal government services do). It’s 2015 - the default way to get information and services from government should be digital, and it should be user-focussed and easy to use. But the non-default analogue option needs to exist, and be user-focussed and easy to use as well. Instead of Uber for the privileged and a once-a-day bus for the rest, let’s build government that’s like self-driving cars for everyone. Anything else is bullshit.



  1. I would prefer to say ‘Citizen-centred’, but for the moment let’s just keep the language consistent. ↩︎

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