John McMahon, Product Director at IEG4 talks about the transformation of public sector digital services and explains the Digital Offset Effect
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Isaac Newton penned his Third Law in the year 1687, and it’s fair to say he was not considering its relevance to digital transformation which would happen some 330 years later. But such is the use-case agnostic nature of this law that it very much holds true in the case of digital transformation in the public sector today.
Why the destination is as important as the journey
At a rudimentary level, the tangible relationship is that for every digital service introduced to reduce telephone calls and improve automation in local government, there should be an equal reduction in calls and operational costs. Thinking about this makes me question the nature of commonly used terms in digital transformation.
While well-known and understood, both of the most common terms are about the journey of digital transformation without measuring the effectiveness or the outcome.
So what should be considered, the destination or end game measure for digital transformation? Is a utopian 100% digital model so fantastical it shouldn’t be considered a reality?
One could argue that digital transformation is a persistent activity without end. This is true in terms of continually improving the user experience, take up levels or saturation and conversion to actions, but not in terms of what technically can be done to make the entirety of a process digitally enabled.
Digital ubiquity versus digital transformation
Digital ubiquity in the public sector is where all contacts and transactions are handled entirely through the digital medium. Now, knowing what the goal is – how does one measure how close one is to achieving it; and whether the action from the introduction of digital services has had the appropriate reaction? There needs to be a new term to measure the level of reaction to digital transformation. Digital transformation is largely down to reducing operational costs; so it could make sense to use the financial term ‘offset’, as the crux of this novel effect.
The Digital Offset Effect (DOE)
The Digital Offset Effect’s basis is that for every digital service introduced there should be an equal ratio of reduced activities through alternative channels. Therefore, if a council were to make every service it offered such as paying council tax and benefit applications a digitally complete one, it would remove all alternative channels of access.
Whilst certain areas in the public sector, such as social care, mean that it may not be possible to make every service digital, the principle holds true for those that can be digitised. Therefore, the de facto DOE measurement would be 100%. This harks back to Newton’s 1:1 action and reaction ratio.
When reviewing and creating digital transformation business cases, DOE should be measured to establish the efficacy of the new digital service in achieving its intended goal. Clearly, unless alternative channels are removed, not all digital services will achieve the gold standard of 100% DOE. Not achieving this rate of success may also be a consequence of the fact that not all services which are digital are designed very well. Not just in terms of how they look (e.g. they may not be mobile device friendly) but also in terms of the user experience (e.g. they may suffer from slow registration processes).
Human nature is like water
The American poet, Wallace Stevens, said: “Human nature is like water. It takes the shape of its container.” I like to think of service delivery like this. Humans will choose the quickest and simplest way to flow through a process such as applying for benefits or paying for their council tax. If that route is not the digital channel because of a poor user interface or experience, then invariably DOE will be sub-optimal. So, achieving a DOE of close to 100% is directly proportionate to the effectiveness of the digital service. Thus, it is a barometer for project sponsors and senior managers to understand whether the service is achieving or whether it will achieve the expected return on investment in the business case.
Is digital ubiquity possible?
It is true that a DOE of 100% is difficult to achieve for public sector organisations with a legacy investment in alternative methods of delivery, but it is certainly not impossible. The private sector shows time and time again that in a bid to minimise operational costs, it is possible to innovate on service development to keep a high DOE level over time.
When easyJet launched 21 years ago emblazoned on the side of its first plane was a big, Boeing 737-sized telephone number. With the eCommerce element of the internet at an embryonic stage this was then the primary medium of finding and booking flights. Fast forward to today and there is, almost no ability to contact a human at easyJet, certainly not by telephone.
Unlike most websites there is no “contact us” option available either. This has been part of its digital by design strategy. Answering telephones is now simply too costly for a well-oiled digital machine.
Rather than focus on call waiting times and costly phone numbers, the philosophy has been to stop this channel and instead prioritise the provision of web services and mobile applications. This enables customers to access the activities and services they most want to use in the most convenient and user friendly fashion. So, this example shows that if one understands all the transactions and engagements people wish to carry out with a specific organisation, it is possible to achieve near or total digital ubiquity even from a company that started off with costlier and less user-friendly channels.
What this illustrates is that, where relevant, councils are able to copy best practice in the private sector.
Digital transformation is happening in every sector and the private sector has a huge vested interest to deliver innovative solutions in the interest of minimising operational costs while simultaneously improving customer service.
Progress tracking, proactive updates and real-time communication within a single council-wide digital platform are critical to the next generation of public sector services – achieving high DOE and close to digital ubiquity.
Of course, in reality, all of this should be balanced up with the fact that the public sector has significantly more processes than the private sector, as well as a political balancing act to do in terms of a carrot and stick approach to digital. While there remains a service delivery paradox which public sector leaders and politicians are versed in (or should be), digital is about providing better services for citizens, not just alternative ones. The digital channel just happens to be significantly cheaper, and, because it provides a better service, is the one that citizens increasingly want to use.
I’m sure that if an explanation of the Digital Offset Effect were to be provided to Isaac Newton, he would tell you it is a no-brainer – that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.