Offline can be the new online

Michael Cross of the Guardian sees some signs that e-government might be “entering bureaucracy’s DNA”.  Leaving aside the oddity of the metaphor, this is clearly intended to be a positive comment – Cross is observing a move away from simply replicating offline experiences online and towards changing – or abolishing – the underlying process.

So far, so good.  But Cross sees two reasons for scepticism.  The first, and to my mind less interesting, is the current reputation of the NHS IT programme.  The second is “the running sore of digital exclusion:”

Transforming bureaucracy to make electronic transactions the streamlined norm condemns those without e-access and e-competencies to a second class service. That can only lead to a further spiral of exclusion…

This is a mainstream issue. If e-transformation of public services misses out 14 million people, neither the chancellor nor anyone else in public service can claim to be meeting the aspirations of the British people.

This seems seriously misguided to me, for three important reasons.

The first is that it assumes that digital exclusion is something static and irreducible.  Of course right now digital exclusion is a problem.  But it’s less of a problem now than it was five years ago, and it’s more of a problem than it will be in five years from now.  There is a clear parallel with telephony:  it’s not so long ago that people worried about “telephony exclusion”.  Change has come partly because phones are cheaper and easier to get hold of, but partly because the idea of a phone has broadened to include things which weren’t even imagined then, notably pre-pay mobiles.  It’s pretty clear that the same effects will continue in other electronic channels, with consequences which are clear in direction if uncertain in precise form.

Whatever the trend, though, nobody is pretending that 14 million people are suddenly going to go out and buy iphones.  That brings us to the second reason why Cross has got it wrong – and it’s worth repeating the key sentence:

Transforming bureaucracy to make electronic transactions the streamlined norm condemns those without e-access and e-competencies to a second class service.

No it doesn’t.  Or, more accurately, no it doesn’t have to.  I almost never go to my bank any more.  That doesn’t mean the bank branches with human beings in them don’t exist any more for those who want them.  It does mean that queuing up to cash a cheque on a Friday afternoon is an experience which ended a generation ago.  If we strip out the routine transactions by people whose increasing preference is to use a self-service approach, people “without e-access and e-competencies” may get a different kind of first class service from staff who are able to focus on their needs.

That in turn links to the third reason.  Cross still seems stuck in the mindset of eGovernment 1.0 where the only thing which changes is that glossy web forms are stuck on top of broken processes.  That’s particularly strange, since the first part of his column is all about the move away from that approach, which he is quite right to see as an important one.  One critical consequence is that staff providing services over the phone and face to face end up with better tools too – which can be (and probably should be) versions of the same tools which the online self-servers are using.   And better tools allow them to give better service to the offline customers, precisely because the service has been improved for the online customers.

The final implied conclusion is that it is illegitimate to improve services for some people because other people don’t get the same benefit.  It seems to me that improving the service in one way for some people, and using that as a means of improving the service in a different way for different people is not only legitimate, but highly desirable.

Of course the counter charge might be that this is all Panglossian optimism, and that the temptation to lure as many as possible into online self-service, to maximise short term efficiency savings, and not to invest any of them in improving the offline experience will prove irresistible to public service providers.  Perhaps.  But that’s exactly the point:  the choice is a political and social one, not a technical one.  The relationship between “e-transformation” and digital exclusion will be the one we collectively choose it to be.  The argument that e-transformation “can only lead to a further spiral of
exclusion” doesn’t stand up.

Comments

  1. Excellent arguments; not getting our thinking right on this issue is a continuing block to the progress we all want to see in the e-transformation deabte.
    What do we mean by digital divide anyway? Access to a PC? Everyone with a laptop? Bear this in mind – in China, the penetration rate of mobile phones is over 100%. That is, more than one phone per person. Google has just announced new products specifically for China to respond to the unexpected lift in the rate of web searches on mobile phones. The same story is repeated, to some extent, all over Asia. Be careful what we mean by digital exclusion. By some measures and definitions, it’s already over (and those of us in the developed world might be the excluded ones?)

  2. It’s not just China – the UK (and quite a few other European countries) are over 100% as well. But that’s phones divided by heads and doesn’t necessarily mean everybody has got one, still less that they (yet) provide internet access. For many public (and other) services, that still matters. I agree though that the trend is clear – hence another of my recent posts – now would be a good time to be making the deeper changes needed and now is definitely a good time to stop thinking that ‘digital’ is a single channel with a single set of characteristics.

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