Given the sweeping changes that digital technologies have brought to our society, it’s useful to remember that the public sector came to digital much later than other sectors. The norms and assumptions of digital consumer culture were developed in the private realm, and these include the belief that more user interaction is always good.
Clicks, views and transactions generate revenue for retail and media companies, but for public service providers, more interaction and more usage isn’t automatically a good thing. It all depends on the context.
Many taxpayer-funded services are rationed; the number of GP appointments or bin collections is determined as much by government budget decisions as by citizen demand. Providers would never admit it, but arduous bureaucracy can actually help them to manage costs by deterring citizens from claiming entitlements, requesting appointments, and so on. Digital nominally improves this situation by making the bureaucracy easier to navigate, but at the same time allowing providers to withdraw other (more costly) forms of citizen contact altogether.
If channel-shift is a negative concept of digital government, then the e-democracy movement offers a positive concept. This encourages citizen involvement in shaping the decisions that affect their lives, via (for example) online petitions and campaigning tools. E-democracy shares greater affinity with digital consumer culture, in that it promotes the user voice and facilitates frequent interaction between users and service providers.
But ‘clicktivism’ can also increase disappointment, by raising expectations that are not fulfilled. It is easier than ever for citizens to say what they want, or do not want; but achieving democratic change is not like making an online purchase. Citizen demands may be incompatible; the UK’s mature system of democracy deliberately features checks and balances that facilitate deliberation and compromise.
Somewhere between these two extremes, the most innovative public service providers are using digital to foster a new and mature relationship with citizens, based on informed and shared decision-making.
“It is easier than ever for citizens to say what they want, or do not want ... but achieving democratic change is not like making an online purchase.”
For example, Newcastle City Council, like many other local authorities, is facing a large budget shortfall which will require hard and unpopular choices to be made. It has encouraged local citizens to participate in those choices by gamifying the challenge, with an interactive website where users can experiment with different cost reduction options while seeing the detailed consequences of each one.
Newcastle is using digital to enable a fundamental change in its relationship with citizens. But elsewhere, the reality of digitisation seems unambitious – just shifting paper application forms, leaflets, letters and petitions to the web. Technology offers so much more, especially for the public sector which has a gigantic geographical footprint and is rich in public spaces, buildings, infrastructure and assets. Public service innovators in transport, higher education and beyond are showing that technology can enrich citizen contact, rather than curtail it, while still achieving cost savings.
As digital frees the public sector from the burden of simple administrative tasks, it’s important not to forget that the relationships between government, public service providers and citizens are unique. Rather than borrowing assumptions from digital consumer culture, it’s time to develop and embrace a new ethic of digital which is unique to public service.