Digital Nuance

Is there/can there be room for nuance in digital systems?

In my experience as a public servant, there’s often a lot of attention paid to how the private sector needs certainty. Of course the flipside of that, which I don’t think is as accepted or as recognised, is that the public sector often likes/requires flexibility.

At first glance, this may seem unlikely or counter-intuitive. After all the public sector is often an environment of rules and processes, with an emphasis on crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. It can feel restrictive and for those on the outside dealing with it, strongly focused on detail and compliance.

Yet it’s also an environment where organisations and teams need to be ready to change direction at short notice – whether it be a policy change, responding to an external set of events, or because of a change of government or a machinery of government change. For public service agencies, locking in a course of action can sometimes be uncomfortable, because there’s always the knowledge that things may need to change, possibly abruptly.

In addition, policymaking can be an inexact process. Policy is often an experimental art, where the differences between intent and realisation can be substantial. There is often a process of iteration and adjustment, even if it may not be clearly identified or talked about as such.

What does this have to do with digital?

Noting that this is not something I’m an expert in, my perception is that a lot of digital transformation work is about really clarifying intent, being clear on user and system needs, and the mapping of workflows/process steps. This work is important for making services easier and more user friendly.

This is surely all for the good, yet I wonder if there’s the potential for issues as digital transformation works through the public sector and moves beyond the transactional. What happens when policy and program design are digital processes, and greater precision and definitive yes/no calls are needed to be made as part of the development?

Certainly a lot of digital systems now have to manage with change and have to have the ability to adjust or incorporate new functionality. However it appears to me that that is more to do with a change of rule-sets, rather than dealing with tension between multiple possible options within a rule-set.

So I assume it will be difficult to put in place digital processes and systems where key questions are not yet answered or where there is a fundamental level of uncertainty/ambiguity. Yet I think it will be challenging for policy practitioners to have the clarity and the exactness that digital thinking might really require.

My question then is as I begun with – is there/can there be room for nuance in digital systems? How might the uncertainty that I would argue is inherent to the policy making process be reflected in a digital world where different pathways and alternatives need to be mapped out? Or will policy making adjust? Or will digital transformation only be partial, with some elements left out?

Alternatively, am I getting ‘digital’ wrong, and this won’t be a tension point at all?

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