It is easy to get caught up in the technology hype and start to imagine all our interactions with government will soon be digitised, automated, and citizen-centric to the point where we never have to interact with a civil servant in person. No more standing in queues, no more filling in forms, and no more waiting on those dreadful call centre queues listening repeatedly to, “Thank you for waiting, all our operators are currently busy. Your call is important to us – you have moved up to number 27 in the queue.’’
Is this the digital government nirvana we have been longing for, or simply fantasy? Or a better question to ask: Is the complete removal of human interaction in government services what we are really looking for?
Put this type of question to a consultant and the answer will be, “It depends.” “Depends on what?” you may ask. Well, it depends on the service on offer and the individual circumstances of the person requiring the service.
Digital government and the technology that enables it offers the opportunity to redefine what is meant by citizen-centric service delivery. I have advocated for many years that the three most important words in government service delivery are “leave me alone.” This could be interpreted as me being an advocate for the removal of human interaction from government service delivery. In fact, it couldn’t be further from the truth – what I mean with these three words is to eliminate unnecessary contact and deliver value when personal contact is required.
The traditional government service delivery model is one-size-fits-all, often scaled down to the lowest common denominator approach—e.g., everyone fills in the same application form for a government service, irrespective of how much information the organisation may already know about you. The digital environment enables processes to be tailored to individual circumstances. What is most important, however, is using digital data and predictive analytics to decide if and when human intervention is required—e.g.,an interview, field visit, or maybe even an outbound phone call.
Personal contact will always have a prime place in government service delivery, especially where inequality exists – inequality in education, income, and economic opportunity. Some level of inequality is a function of the capitalist economic model. A 2013 article in Foreign Affairs reported, “Inequality is an inevitable product of capitalist activity, and expanding equality of opportunity only increases it — because some individuals and communities are simply better able than others to exploit the opportunities for development and advancement that capitalism affords.”
The report continued, “Contemporary capitalist polities need to accept that inequality and insecurity will continue to be the inevitable result of market operations and find ways to shield citizens from their consequences — while somehow still preserving the dynamism that produces capitalism’s vast economic and cultural benefits in the first place.”
A digital government needs to navigate within this complex environment of managing inequality. In the desire to make all services digital and to extract maximum efficiency dividends, there will always be people who are vulnerable and at risk to the determinants of inequality. A government that makes optimal use of the digital data at its disposal will be in a better position to identify those people at risk and to target interventions. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, there will be situations where the personal hand of government will be necessary and appreciated.
To guard against the inevitable determinants of inequality, which have the potential to be exacerbated by digital disruption, a digital government will continually remind itself that governing is still a people business.