Musings on the Digital Revolution (or eleven thoughts on what digital transformation might mean for the public service) – pt 4

(Pt 3 can be found here.)

10. Digital allows for, and legitimises, different information preferences

The medium is the message.” Digital allows information to be presented and represented in a huge variety of ways.

Information production is experiencing exponential rates of growth. YouTube and Instagram are indicators of the appetite for information in visual form. The written word no longer has the dominance that it once did.

In an information rich environment, brevity and distillation of meaning is prized. ‘Time poor’ decision makers want access to the right information, but limited to the bare essentials they need to make the right calls.

Digital allows for information to be presented in many many ways. This diversity allows individuals to explore their preferences for how they like to receive and interact with information, where once they may have been limited to stylistic (written) forms that had arisen in their organisation.

In the public service, the preferences of one or two major decision-makers at the top of the organisation can shape how everyone else presents information regardless of their individual preferences. However, in an interconnected world where issues may be shared across organisations and audiences, that may no longer be the case. Different decision makers will expect to receive information in a style that suits them – and a digital world will reinforce that expectation.

A digital world may require public servants to be much better at developing stories and engaging with creative forms of presenting and sharing information that builds the case for an argument across media (blogs, microblogs, photos, videos, art) and across information forms (e.g. written/visual, anecdotal/statistical, personal/ impersonal, detailed/big picture).

11. Friction as a source of democratic engagement?

Why do people care about public services? Does anyone truly care about an extremely well-run public service unless it stops working?

A digital world may very possibly be one where governments are able to smooth out, simplify and automate much of government service delivery. A digital world may even lead to governments that are fast, responsive and agile, engaging with issues early on and working with citizens and stakeholders to develop effective and co-designed and co-produced processes.

Though it may seem remote or unlikely now, it is worth considering what the outcome of such a scenario might be.

In his 1969 science fiction novel Whipping Star the author Frank Herbert posited the creation of a ‘Bureau of Sabotage’ in the far future, as a response to government becoming tremendously efficient and responsive and where red tape has disappeared. The Bureau acts as a means of slowing down the sped-up processes of government in order to provide citizens the opportunity to reflect upon changes and the direction of government.

While this is obviously far-fetched, there is an underlying point of relevance to this discussion. If the public service does manage to become a truly digital one, where things can be rolled out quickly and smoothly, particularly in service delivery, the regular engagement of citizens with government may become seamless and barely noticeable.

This would seem a clear good. However, perhaps consideration should be given to what that means for how citizens engage with government, and with the democratic process. How will citizens see government if the now obvious areas of service delivery become part of the background? Will the focus be more on the policy process and any issues that are difficult, complex and possibly intractable – e.g. difficult and not immediately relatable?

Consideration might be given to better understanding in the public service how and why citizens engage with the democratic process, and whether in a digital world where greater efficiencies and levels of responsiveness are possible, different channels for engagement are required.

In summary

  • Digital is fast. The public service may need to improve its capabilities at identifying and considering emerging issues earlier in order to be able to effectively respond
  • Policy in a digital world is likely to be more like a service than a product, which will require a different conceptual approach to policymaking
  • Digital and the legislative process are unlikely to be a comfortable match. Consideration of how the legislative process can be agile will be needed
  • New structures and organising frameworks will be required to match a more complex policy environment
  • These structures and digital trends will change the power dynamics both within and without public service agencies
  • Digital services may not be limited to residents/citizens and first mover advantage may be strong and also lock in particular pathways
  • Digital innovation will be fast and constant and will raise likely questions around legitimacy of innovations for public service agencies
  • A digital perspective will likely challenge many of the operating procedures of the public service
  • The digital shift will affect different areas at different times. Public sector organisations may find it difficult to cater to both ends of the spectrum at the same time
  • Digital allows for information to be presented in very different ways according to different preferences. This may be challenging for the public service
  • A digital public service might actually achieve significant efficiencies and seamless service delivery. What might this achievement mean for how citizens engage with their governments?

This is not intended as a prescription nor is it seeking to be a definitive text about digital government. Rather it is intended to provoke discussion and explore what the possible implications of ‘digital’ might be.

A pdf version of these posts is available here.

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