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Is digital the answer for public sector design?

Updated: Feb 26, 2019

In recent years, many people and their organisations have become very excited about the use of digital products and data. Let’s face it: digital solutions and data are sexy! Some organisations have gone as far as to change their business model and completely focus on digital only. This makes me very nervous. Is this the right direction for the public sector?

I ask this question because in the early 2000’s public sector organisations were focused on technology. I remember being part of a very large organisational change program that was proclaimed as being the saviour for the organisation. The new systems would apparently revolutionise the way we did business. Needless to say, it was not the success everyone thought it would be. In fact, it created many new and unforeseen problems. So much so, that there was a parliamentary inquiry into the program because of the impact that it had on our clients and our community partners.


What did we learn?

Technology should not drive the solution. During the time of the organisational change program we were told that the “system would come with best practice processes and methods”, that as an organisation we need to adapt and change the way we worked to meet the system. This way of thinking was one of the key principles that lead to the failure of the program. People are inherently efficient in the way we choose to do things. Some may call it lazy. We always find the means to do the minimum amount of work to get the task done. If you have ever seen a well-worn dirt track across a pristine campus, field or yard, only meters away from a beautiful concrete pathway, you will see such behaviour in action. The dirt track is there because it is the most natural system for those who need to cross the terrain. The artificial path does not meet the need of the users. The development and design of technology is no different. If you want humans to use your technology, then you need to design it to fit human use. Understand what is needed then design to meet that need. Technology is not a “build it and they will come” solution.


You must understand the problem and design a holistic solution to address the cause - not the symptoms. Again, this might seem like such a rudimentary principle that it would be impossible to get wrong. However, diagnosing a problem can be hard. Unless you have the skills and the knowledge to methodically deconstruct the issue, you may find yourself resolving nothing more than a symptom. In the case of the organisation’s change program, the problem was defined as an outdated IT system that needed replacing. When in fact the real problem was creating a system that would be enduring, extensible and face modern financial requirements whilst also ensuring the community could interact and manage their affairs with little effort. The design process failed to incorporate a real understanding of the broader community need and the role that our organisation played. Therefore, the organisation may have improved the speed and the robustness of the system, but it also increased the complexity and the cost of compliance for the community.


Technology is only one tool or part of a system that must be designed to meet the needs of the user. You may even discover that the solution does not require the development of technology.


(Gasp!) I know that a statement such as this, may challenge some. We are so focused on the next best digital product, how it will work and how beautiful it will be, that we have decided what the solution is before understanding the broader context. I recently observed a poorly designed research project assessing the quality of aged care facilities. The survey was only available online and was distributed to 80,000 potential clients. It was a fairly standard satisfaction survey with reasonably well-designed questions for the average person. However, none of the people at the aged care facility could access the survey. Families and staff had to be recruited to assist the completion of the online form, usually by reading the survey to the participant to complete the task. The 20-minute survey became 40 minutes. The questions were too long and had to be summarised for the participants because they could not retain the entire question in their memory. There were often 10 or more possible choices for each question. I suspect that many did not complete the survey, and the data was most likely compromised. The digital solution was cheap to administer, but whatever it cost, it was too much. It was the wrong answer to the problem.


Yes, this is a relatively simple example of insufficient understanding of the problem context. However, the more complex the problem, the greater the care and sensitivity should be taken to understand the consequences of the solution. Public services are invariably complex. Even a simple transaction, such as paying an invoice can become absurdly difficult. Digital services can reduce the burden that transactions can have on the community. The use of data can enhance the methods and means for accessing appropriate information when a citizen needs it most. These are definitely good things! However, most of our lives are not digital (well I hope for most of us!) We live in a human world and require tools and assistance because of our humanity.


Where have we gone wrong? Have we forgotten the human in designs?

I experienced a rather distressing but also educational visit to a local hospital recently with a three-year old daughter of a friend. The young girl was having a growth near her eye lanced. This is a very simple procedure which should be quick and cause little discomfort. What I witnessed was a very efficient process with the best equipment, apps to help admission of the patient, and technology to ensure correct recording of vital information. However, the staff were not focused on the impact that the experience was having on the patient. There were four attempts to administer an intravenous injection, multiple attempts to inject antibiotics and then when the patient had endured the worst of the procedure, the staff decided to provide anesthetic, so the procedure could be completed. Due to the stress, the little girl was then kept in hospital for an additional four nights which left both her and her mother, traumatised. However, this is a public service with a progressive digital public interface. Is this what is considered best practice public administration?


Even in services that are less emotionally charged, such as administering grants, paying welfare or collecting tax, the information technology is a tool used to assist the interaction and the collection or dissemination of data. The citizen experiences a range of interactions with people, facilities and processes to complete their tasks. All of these elements must work together and provide a complete service experience. Technology is only one element in this complex design.


Digital or technology driven services may also be exceptionally efficient and provide great service when operating under ideal or common conditions. But it is often when people have something that must be dealt with that occurs outside of the 80% of most common transactions, where they need the most human support. Unfortunately, humans are… well…human. Lives are messy. We have accidents, make mistakes, get fatigued and make poor judgements. The public sector cannot ignore or avoid the responsibility that it has in ensuring services can be provided for all – regardless of their ability to remain within the 80%.


Public sector organisations must remain focused on the impact that they have in providing a service to the community. Digital will play a significant part in this directive. Digital, data and other advances will aid in supporting services. However, we cannot lose sight of the main game. We are designing experiences and services for people. We must remember the lessons from the past, ensure we create solutions for real problems, understand the real-world context and keep humans as the focal point for our designs.


#digital #humancentered #designthinking #publicsector

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