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Roger Clarke's 'Government Service Delivery'

Government Service Delivery
Near-Future Realities in a High-Bandwidth World

Notes of 6 May 2009

For Senator Kate Lundy's Public Sphere Event on High Bandwidth for Australia

Roger Clarke **

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1. Introduction

When you engage in futurism, there are two important truisms:

These comments reflect enthusiasm for what can be achieved if we apply high broadband and new tools effectively, but concern about some challenges that are in grave danger being overlooked.

2. Government Service Delivery

By government service delivery (GSD), I mean the provision of services, by governments, with the assistance of telecommunications and telecommunications-based tools. The scope is wide, encompassing access to information about government, and about things government knows about (such as swine flu 'pandemics'), interactive advice on health matters and tax, applications for benefits, payment of benefits, consultations on current issues, voting for representatives, and participative democracy.

3. Contexts

GSD changes continually, as human needs change. Just to pick on a few recent examples of suddenly-important new priorities, people seem to expect explosions on overloaded Indonesian boats to be prevented, new strains of flu to be intercepted at the border, new anti-biotics to be comprehensively tested but available straight way, and subsidised, and the global warming to be reversed without the captains of industry getting upset.

We also expect the delivery mechanisms for GSD to change rapidly as well. Here are four contextual factors that we all have to cope with.

(1) High-Broadband

We've all got hold of different parts of the elephant, and we all want the bits we like, and we all assume it's affordable, and 'when do we want it? now!'.

But the desire for mobility ('do it on the move') conflicts with the desire for high-broadband (fibre-optic is 'faster' than wireless, but if you use it you're tethered).

And the desire for pervasiveness ('do it anywhere') conflicts with the desire for high-broadband (laying fibre-optic in remote areas simply won't happen).

So many of our wishes for high-broadband are, and will remain, unfulfillable.

(2) Highly Diverse Access Devices

Network infrastructure is all very well, but if you don't have a device connected to it, the benefits you get from it will be indirect (e.g. I don't have gas appliances, but hopefully my electricity will be cheaper or more reliable because my next-door neighbours do).

The devices that connect people to the networked telecommunications infrastructure include desktops, portables, handhelds, mobile phones, games machines, digital cameras, ... - and that's only the consumer segment. Organisations also have hosts, telemetry devices, surveillance cameras, smartcards, RFID tags, and shortly (we're promised) 'smart dust'.

A government agency can't make plans for how it will respond to High Broadband' without an understanding of the devices used by the various customer segments it serves. But the landscape is complex, because:

(3) Highly Diverse Patterns of Use

Devices have distinctly different UIs, varying from text with hard- or soft-keyboard and finger, thumb or stylus, via desktop metaphors with icons and pointers, to gesture. Many devices offer their users at least some degree of choice or customisation.

Almost all devices come with built-in functions, but almost all come with at least some degree of open-endedness, with many official and 'after-market' add-ons. And, beyond the designers' intentions, 'the street has its uses for things'. Services need to have sufficient 'fit' to the device and the person's style that it will be at least usable, preferably attractive, and desirably, compelling.

Another aspect of use patterns is the time-of-day and time-of-week when a service is called upon. Many users and their devices are 'always on', and their expectation is that the service will be too. 'Organisational downtime', whether because of the costs of overnight and weekend staffing or the need to run backups, is not a concept understood by users.

A further kind of difference is what might be called 'language modality'. Text is normal for many groups of people - although full-keyboard, handheld email and SMS have spawned rather different conventions; but so is voice, and younger groups are much more at home with image and video. Each language modality has associated with it patterns of use that can undermine the most carefully designed government service.

(4) Highly Diverse Human Needs

But the three context-dimensions discussed so far are all technology-based. And that misses a crucial point about government service delivery: services are delivered by governments not to devices but to people.

Moreover, services aren't delivered equally, and aren't meant to be. In societies that understand that inequality in capability and/or opportunity is normal ('the poor [in something] will be always with us'), priority is given to those who most need it, whether chronically (those with permanent incapacity) or acutely (those who are temporarily but substantially constrained).

Australia has hundreds of thousands of people who have physical disabilities (or hindrances, or diff-abilities, depending on the political correctness of the time). There are hundreds of thousands with intellectual hindrances. There are people with language deficiencies (some cultural, some intellectual), and those who simply had a bad start in life and are playing catch-up.

Even within these broad groups, there is enormous diversity. The deaf, the blind, and the people without a usable index-finger or thumb, all do things differently, need different user interfaces, probably need different user interface metaphors, and very probably have different devices-of-choice.

Yet more problematically for government service delivery, some proportion of them aren't connected, and some proportion never will be. Even among those that are connected, many will have limitations on their connectivity, such as old devices, limited-function devices, and connections that are throttled-back, filtered, cash-in-advance (and hence sometimes not operational), or dependent on the increasingly endangered notion of gratis net-connections.

4. Generations

One of the dimensions of difference that government service delivery has to confront is generational distinctions. Although it's above all a state of mind, it's conventional in the marketing world to divide people up according to their year of birth. One conventional breakdown is in Exhibit 1.

Exhibit 1: The Generations

Each person belongs to a cohort such as the Baby-Boomers (mine), Gen-X (Kate Lundy's), and Gen-Y (everyone under 30 today). The members of each cohort pass through time, age, and fall of their perches in patterns that have more to do with the rules of demographics than convenience to bureaucrats.

The members of each generation had a very different set of formative influences, and have varying capabilities to cope with vicissitudes (such as recessions), significantly different values, and significantly different expectations.

They also have quite different needs for government services, at any one time, and over time; and they gain access to those services very differently. Some are dependent on direct human contact, in what are now called 'shop-fronts', at counters and desks. And even for those for whom network infrastructure is critical, the end-point devices and modalities of use differ greatly, from tethered-telephone and call-centre, via mobile phone, SMS, email and web-form, to blogging and twittering.

The twin problem confronting government agencies is that the channels keep proliferating and diversifying, but as yet not one of them can be done without. The survivors among the silent generation won't all reliably be in retirement villages for another 15-20 years, and the Baby Boomers are only slowly (and reluctantly) relinquishing society's positions of power.

5. A Self-Referential Case Study: How to Make a Public Sphere Work

This initiative itself provides a case study in the challenges that confront service delivery. Participants expect to be able to contribute in whatever form and format they normally used, and for their comments to find their way into the pool. The channels include:

The form varies, including:

In the case of text, the expression varies, including:

And when participants respond to previous contributions, their manner of interactivity varies, including:

And those are just the mechanics of the process. Some of the deeper challenges include:

A public sphere by its nature disenfranchises the people who aren't 'well-connected' in the technological sense. But even within the population segments that are capable of participating, there is enormous diversity that has to be coped with.

6. Conclusions

Human communication has always been highly varied in style. High broadband has unleashed creativity, and even more patterns of human communication have emerged. Some will die as quickly as they exploded, others will flourish - at least within particular communities and niche-usages, and others will struggle onwards, no longer in fashion, but with a committed user-base.

EFTPOS exploded once the banks implemented the 'any card on any terminal' dictum. User of government services who are 'well-connected', will demand 'any time, any place, any device, any style' access. The dynamism of device and style are challenging for the designers of a 'public sphere'. They will create enormous difficulties for government agencies charged with delivering services while keeping costs under tight control.

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., a Visiting Professor in the E-Commerce Programme at the University of Hong Kong, and a Visiting Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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Created: 5 May 2009 - Last Amended: 6 May 2009 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
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