Digital by default

As I write this, I’m sitting on a stationary train. In a station. The rail app on my phone tells me it’s the train I want. But the signs on the platform are totally blank. And the guy in uniform on the train doing the uncoupling says he doesn’t know where it’s going.

So, do I believe what the app tells me? Rather than embark on an exercise in Bayesian conditional probability, it’s making me think about that phrase “digital by default”.

Because I’m still not entirely sure I know what it means. Or, even if I do, that I’m seeing it used consistently.

And this experience with the phone app right now is a good reflection of what I think it should mean: that a service has been built, first and foremost, so that its delivery in digital channels is the way that it works best.

–that information in the digital channel is “the truth”.

–that if the train is switched to another platform, the digital channel will be the first to reflect this.

–that train staff will be looking at their own digital devices for information before they look at platform signs, or paper print-outs of departures, or get on the internal intercom to the driver.

That, to me, is digital by default.

An underpinning design principle that the service is supposed to be like this. Not, as has so often been the case, with digital features as a sort of awkward bolt-on after the fact.

I pointed out to a member of station staff a few weeks ago, who tried to stop me, that I was going through the gates to platform 10 because this device in my hand was telling me my train would be there. And I trusted it, at least enough to wait there.

He looked in incomprehension at this device. It wasn’t part of the script. The situation was the very opposite of “digital by default”.

So, apart from this nice, rosy, optimistic definition, what else have I seen it used to mean?

Well – sadly, sometimes as the Mr Nasty of channel-shift enthusiasts: the reason why counter services will be closed, the hammer that will force people to abandon their Luddite ways, the only real means of forcing out cash savings in this techno-progressive world we were told so much about.

And if people don’t want to shift, then tough. They won’t have the option. Default, innit? Capisce? Ok, if they’re really incapable, because of disability or crap connectivity, there’ll be some sort of stop-gap. A bolt-on, if you like. After the fact.

Now, does that sound somewhat familiar?

Or, for a third flavour, how about Mr Nasty’s gentler cousin: the service redesign that still has the closure of non-digital channels at its heart, but attempts to do so by attraction to a better, digital alternative, rather than brute imposition?

The interpretation you hear is connected to the source you hear it from, I guess. These versions all have different political palatability, and provoke different passions in different audiences.

So which do you i) think it really means now? And ii) which one would you like it to mean?

A – a fundamental design principle from the ground up
B – channel shift by imposition and removal of choice
C – channel shift by being more attractive than non-digital

Your answers, below, if you please:

Category: Other

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8 Responses

  1. Charlie says:

    From what I gather this is all about efficiency and boosting productivity, so it’s unlikely digital by default will be much more than (B) replacing services without a choice.

    I believe that a hybrid of both (A) and (C) is the better method. A process that is not only more efficent and productive for the service provider, but so easy and efficent for the user. To be this much more attractive than non-digital it really should be designed from the ground up as a system whilst giving an apparent choice at its heart, even though its motive is the same as B.

  2. Interesting blog Paul.

    “Digital by Default” comes from the Open Public Services White Paper.

    “The Government has also committed to design and deliver all information and transactional services *DIGITALLY BY DEFAULT*. Supported by assisted digital services, advice and guidance should also move online as expertise develops to ensure that everyone can beneit from digitised service provision. ” [my emphasis]

    http://files.openpublicservices.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/OpenPublicServices-WhitePaper.pdf Section 7.12

    I have been thinking about for 3 months and I have still no idea what it means!

  3. Richard says:

    If it helps, I think there is also a softer version of B which I’ve seen described as ‘assisted digital by default’.

    I think that means that while the counter services and call centres might still be closed, those who might have used them could go to another location (say a library or CAB) and have someone help them through the process of completing the transaction online.

    I guess that would still allow some savings on backoffice costs but transfers more load onto the frontline. Although if it is really an improved service then overall it might still have a lower cost.

    Also, I’m not sure A is incompatible with either B or C as service design and service delivery can *possibly* be thought about seperately.

    Eg if the service was really designed to make it as simple as possible for the user, then it would be more efficient whether it was then the citizen who was going through the process online or a public servant in a call centre taking the citizen through the same steps.

    So maybe if you get the design right then you can give yourself more options over delivery channels further down the line?

  4. Mavis says:

    Regarding what Richard said. No amount of help would allow people like my father to work through transactions on line. I already have to deal with bills that cannot be paid by cheque. At 84 he has never used a computer and has neither the inclination nor the means to learn how.
    I’m not assuming that all people his age are the same, but many, from working class backgrounds are. Any move to make services “digital by default” whatever it really means is simply further disenfranchising vulnerable people

  5. Thanks for this, addresses a much misunderstood concept. In a two-part series on the topic for Socitm Insight, we said:

    “‘Digital by default’ has been widely taken to mean policies that dictate that services will be offered online or not at all. But, as Martha Lane Fox explained at Socitm 2010, digital by default is about redesigning services to work first on the web. This is in complete contrast to the approach of the ‘egovernment’ years, which saw hundreds of services, originally designed for phone or face-to-face channels, added to websites without modification and certainly not the total re-think that new technologies make possible and desirable.”

    Yes there are people (the very young, the very old, those with significant learning difficulties) who will never be able use the internet or do transactions online. But they can’t do other stuff either, and are disenfranchised not by technology, but by people being unwilling or unable to provide the range of support they need.

  6. I think we are at somewhere in between B+C, and should aim at A.

    However, I would speculate that what is intended as “digital-by-default” is actually a mere “digital-for-delivery”.

    There are many ways “digital” might be interpreted. The current one is “delivery through some digital means”, where “digital” is reduced to “cool-and-somewhat-fashionable” (i.e. open data intended, mostly, for mobile device).

    If my mobile is more accurate than the platform display* (which is itself digital, although most people would not think of it as such) we have a problem: it’s a paradigm that doesn’t work as it only plays on the novelty status of these services rather than on overall service improvement.

    We need a shift in the way we intend the paradigm: from “digital by default” as a mere design process for some backend, to a “digital delivery” paradigm. A properly designed digital infrastructure on the backend that drives efficient, timely delivery on the front end.

    Once again, I feel we have amazing engineers but bad management: unable to get the idea that the public needs UI experts.

    (*) the same applies to National Rail and TfL

  7. Harry says:

    @mavis – my father is exactly the same. I think its common cross-class.

  8. Becky says:

    Thanks for this!

    I’ve quoted you in some reflections on Digital by Default on my blog http://beckyfaith.net/2012/02/12/digital-by-default/ which takes up the theme of disenfranchising of vulnerable people.

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