Digital by design? Questions not answers

mind map on the question of digital by design

This is part of a bigger project that Solace are looking at around a policy landscape for local government on the digital agenda (hopefully covering all 7 tribes of digital!!!). I’ve been asked to sketch out the critical questions and issues that I see under the broad heading of digital by design.

Hopefully colleagues working on this won’t mind me sticking these notes up on the blog as part of the process – its a habit for me but also reflects one aspect of digital by design – the need to think in public and share work in progress.

The mind map above shows my musings but in a more structured format here are the questions I think need addressing as you consider being digital by design:

What are you designing for?
Design without purpose is often just an exercise in the use of good stationary – the starting point has to be an understanding of purpose. Do we have a clear articulation of why local government needs to be digital by design or is this something that evangelists believe and everyone else is trying to ignore? or as ever is the truth somewhere in the middle? Would a public debate about this purpose be useful?

What is your context?
Purpose can’t exist in isolation – I would argue that there are two ways of viewing your context:

  • the need to design 21st century public services. Key drivers here are austerity but also a need to find ways to better involve people in the design and delivery of services in order to address wicked issues
  • the need to respond to the drivers defined by the wider context of social change. Key drivers here are the participatory/co-productive behaviours that we find online, a need to be open by default and a response to the growth of networked rather than hierarchical power

Do we understand the context in which we are working and how it relates to ‘digital’ thinking?

Inclusion / exclusion
I am not actually a big fan of the phrase ‘digital by design’ – I prefer the phrase digital by default as I think it reflects the need to make the best possible use of technology. By default does not mean to the exclusion of all else and all others. If we are going to be digital by design or default then we need to make sure that this does not either exclude parts of the audience or force things online which are best dealt with face to face – this is where the ‘by design’ comes in.

However, digital exclusion continues to be a major concern and we need to consider this alongside other forms of deprivation. Key questions in this area are:

  • Do you understand the facts? Do we have a clear picture of who is not online and why?
  • Is it a problem of skills or access? While many people already have access via a smartphone or tv often it is their skills which are holding them back
  • Have we given them a reason to be there? This is back to purpose – we can’t expect people to start using an online form just because its cheaper for us – it has to be a better experience for them.
  • Are we looking after our staff? When we consider digital exclusion, especially the context of skills, how would your own workforce rate? Do we know the skills we are missing? This is not just the more obvious gaps around design or data analysis but more fundamental skills around use of collaborative technologies or different models of project management. Don’t we have a duty of care to our staff to make sure that they have the skills which they will need to be part of the workforce of the future?

Much of what I have covered in this post has been about the social infrastructure for becoming digital by design – clearly there is also a need to consider technical infrastructure. Leadership questions in here are:

  • Are you confident that your infrastructure is sufficiently future proof? How far ahead should we be looking?
  • Do you have a connected infrastructure? Does it serve your whole strategy or are different aspects competing?
  • Have you considered your internal infrastructure? This goes back to the point about staff – are your internal systems helping or hindering your efforts?
  • Is it civic and open? Does it create the opportunity for digital place shaping?
  • Do you understand your data? How can it become more of an asset for the council but also for your community?
  • Do you have the right partners? With so much infrastructure now outsourced do we understand what ‘good’ looks like any more?

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