'Digital By Default' is challenge behind the scenes
What will it mean for the UK's public services to become 'digital by default?'
At the recent UKA Authority Live panel "Channel Shift - are we moving towards Digital by Default?" a nuanced definition was outlined by Rebecca Kemp, policy team leader at the Government Digital Service.
The phrase means that "Everyone who chooses to do it digitally can do it that way, and everyone who can't do it digitally isn't excluded," said Kemp, pointing towards the complementary development of "assisted digital" services to help those without access to or skills or confidence to use digital channels. And digital services were not just about the part that the citizen sees, Kemp said: "We are equally interested in what's going on behind the scenes, so the service being digital at the back end, the processing, as much as how the user interacts with it."
Kit Wilson, customer services manager at Newport City Council, said that the digitisation of services from front to back was key to both improving service access and quality and boosting efficiency in the public sector - vital in a time of dwindling budgets.
"It is all well and good having a service which is digital at the front end to the customer, but the benefit you see as an organisation comes with this being integrated fully throughout the back office processes as well. The age of austerity is one of the reasons you need to do it, because ultimately the redesigning of these services will make them more efficient."
Martin Greenwood, director of Socitm Insight, went further: "If you don't use it as a reason to redesign processes from the start, then you've missed the whole point of going digital."
The point made by Kemp from the outset about access for all was picked up by Haydn Knight, director at Capita Software Services.
"There will always be the vulnerable and the needy and those who don't have access or the ability to access," said Knight. But he said that everyone could gain by a move towards more efficient digital services: "I think what you'll find is that as we move more and more people into the digital environment, the focus and attention that we can give those vulnerable sectors is far more focused and will be a better service to them.
The key to 'assisted digital' will be not to simply offer services through traditional channels but to pass on digital skills where possible, Kemp said. "Rather than just saying OK, you can do it by phone instead... [we must] think how we provide that extra support and ask how can we help someone gain the confidence to use the digital service independently next time?"
Newport council was already working in this way to help residents use its online system for bidding for social housing, said Wilson. "We assist people with that process, they come into our one-stop shop, we've got a bank of self-service PCs and we will sit with them and take them through that process.
"Now that may help them build their confidence and help them to be able to do it themselves from home next time, or to now come in and sit at one of our PCs and go through the process themselves, because they had the confidence built the previous time."
Skills and confidence are not just issues for service users: inside public sector bodies, there is currently a shortfall of skills to develop digital services on the scale that is going to be needed, the panel heard.
"We're working with departments on the skills for them to be able to build and manage digital services", said Kemp. "There is a lot of talent out there, and the last thing we want to do is suck it all into GDS, we want to be helping central government departments to build their own small digital teams."
Local authorities face an even tougher task accessing the right technical skills needed such as web analytics, as they have much smaller teams supporting digital activity than government departments, said Greenwood.
"Even the biggest local authorities might only have one or two people if they're lucky who are really skilled in this area. And so maybe they need different approaches like sharing skills between councils".
Wilson agreed: "If you look at Wales, with 22 separate local authorities with very small teams and different levels of knowledge within each, there is an argument to say you should be sharing that knowledge, and learning more from what central government are putting out there, rather than trying to discover it 22 different times in Wales and however many times in England."
Suppliers who work with many councils and other public sector bodies have a role to play in transferring skills and knowledge as well, said Knight.
As for those specific detailed digital skills such as tracking web use statistics and analytics, they are "absolutely essential" to proper digitisation of public services, Greenwood said.
"I don't see how anyone can develop or monitor any plan in this area without having any information about how well it's going. There is no right answer to lots of this, so you need to see whether your results are better or worse than other people's results."
It is particularly useful for councils to be able to make these comparisons when they launch a new digital service, said Wilson.
"If you can benchmark across a number of other local authorities who have already been down that journey, you know what [initial take-up is achievable]. So for each transaction you can tell the percentage that interact with that service online, the percentage that interact via face to face, the percentage via the telephone and how that changes over time, and also what measures are put in place, what activities change those patterns, so if you run a large advertising campaign for instance, the effect that will have on web take-up."
Tracking data about service take-up also allows organisations to iterate their development rapidly and flexibly, said Kemp. "A side benefit of that is being able to be transparent about the performance of our services, putting it out there whether things are working or not."
This detail can be tracked right down to the precise point where people stop using a digital service, Wilson said. "So for instance we had a very complex pothole reporting form on our website, and you could see that everyone got through the first two pages of it and then dropped out because then it was becoming more complex.
"With a telephone or face to face service, it's a lot harder where that process falls down. With the web you know exactly where it falls down and you can go back and change it based on that feedback."
Alongside service development, promotion work and the skills and confidence-building work already mentioned must continue alongside to ensure they are taken up to the fullest extent, the panel heard.
"You might have some people that aren't interacting online with any services, and those people aren't just going to respond to advertising, they need more face to face intervention", Wilson said. "That's where we'll set up sessions in libraries, in leisure centres, in community centres, where it is about building confidence.
"It might be as simple a thing as using Skype that gets their interest because it allows them to speak to a member of the family who lives in Australia, but actually it's the first step in getting them on that journey to using online services."
NOTE: This article is the first of two reports on our panel debate. The second will appear later this week.
Channel Shift - are we moving towards Digital by Default? http://www.ukauthority.com/Live/20Mar2013ChannelShiftDigitalbyDefault/tabid/221/Default.aspx