The trouble with digital: persona non data

04 November 2016 -


The government’s ‘digital by default’ approach to service delivery has one clear flaw

Simon Caulkin

Digital by default; all government services to go online. It sounds so sensible: we all use the web; it’s quick, convenient and accessible everywhere, 24/7. So why not have everything delivered online?

And, since it’s largely DIY, it’s also cheap. What’s not to like? Alas, in practice, digital by default isn’t so simple.

The internet is all of those good things, but the theory, ironically, does not take into account the all-too human motives of buyers and sellers. Vendors have boxes and software to shift, and procurement managers savings to make.

Both have targets to meet.

All too often the result is that, instead of being used to complement and capitalise on human effort and ability, computers are bought and sold to supplant them – because they’re cheaper, not better. Big mistake.

Humans are good at coping with ambiguous, shifting entities, such as people’s priorities, or demands that don’t fit squarely in one category or another.

Computers excel at sorting black and white, and adding one to two.

Fitting humans to computers, rather than the reverse, is a sure-fire recipe for getting neither convenience nor economy.

At the trivial end, the result is such hideousness as ‘synthetic personalisation’, where a poor soul in a contact centre is obliged to insert your first name in the script they’re reading – a trick that only breeds cynicism and scorn.

At the university where my wife works, all course-marking and final grading is done anonymously, by computer, online. That removes the possibility of bias – fine – but also a lecturer’s ability to adjust a final mark that, for some reason (family difficulties, say), might not give a true idea of a student’s abilities over three years – not so fine, particularly when managers then remind professors that good relationships between staff and students are a big driver of those all-important student-satisfaction scores.

On a larger scale are big service entities such as Universal Credit (UC), HMRC and, unfortunately, much of the NHS. They simply function as factories of customer alienation.

The design logic is economic: the internet is the cheapest and thus preferred transaction medium, while face-to-face human transactions are the most expensive and, therefore, only to be used as a last resort.

But the real cost of dealing with a patient, claimant or taxpayer isn’t the unit costs of individual interactions but the end-to-end cost of all the transactions needed to resolve the issue.

If putting IT first just involves doing the wrong thing faster, there is zero gain and it may actually make matters worse.

Lengthening NHS queues, intolerable waiting times to get through to HMRC and ever-increasing delays in delivering UC, each at huge cost, are the products of this basic error.

The counter-intuitive rule is: start with customers and the people on the front line; work out how the latter can meet the needs of the former as quickly as possible, preferably at the first pass; and only then consider if online could make things run better and more smoothly.

It’s always cheaper in the long run.

You’d rather like computers to be in charge of fly-by-wire aircraft and nuclear power stations, albeit with human override. But ‘digital by default’ and its derivatives that devalue human judgment are mostly dangerously deceptive or just plain wrong.

Waterstones, the books chain, was almost bankrupt in 2011, when a brave new owner chose a live bookseller (wow!), James Daunt, as MD.

Daunt disconnected the algorithms that Waterstones used to ‘optimise’ its displays. Then he stopped publishers buying the prime spots in stores to display their wares. Next, he fired half the store managers and put all the shops in charge of local managers who both knew their areas and cared about books, to run as if they were independents.

Five years later, Waterstones is not only back to black but opening new stores all over the place.

Waterstones, in short, is the corporate poster boy for the mantra that should be tattooed on every manager’s forehead: ‘human by default’.

Have a human interaction with Simon on Twitter @nikluac

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