Today, the UK Cabinet Office (responsible for cross-government administrative strategy and operations) announced the members of the newly-formed Digital Advisory Board. The Board’s role will be to keep an eye on the government’s attempts to deliver better services digitally, and to advise it on how to deliver the highest possible quality of user experience.
No-one wants sub-optimal user experience in their online interactions with government services.
I wont list or categorise the Board’s members one by one… there are only a dozen of them, and a quick glance at the press release will give you a pretty good impression. The impression it gives me is this: there are plenty of service delivery experts there, whether commercial ones such as Lloyds Banking Group, Marks and Spencer or Condé Nast, or community-oriented ones like Will Perrin of “Talk About Local”, and the London Olympics organisers. There are also nods to academia, telecomms and social networking. They look like an intelligent, qualified and motivated group of individuals. And yet (call me a worrier, but…) I’m uneasy.
The direction of travel, in technology and Internet service delivery, is clear: all else being equal, it is easier to deliver services online than offline; it is easier to accumulate data en masse than to discard it selectively; it is easier to aggregate data than to segregate it; it is easier to publish data than to keep it secret. Those are the facts of digital life.
However, sometimes our interests, as conumers and citizens, are actually best served if our data is kept offline, discarded when not needed, strictly segregated by purpose, and if necessary encrypted. This, of course, requires something that resists the otherwise inevitable direction of travel. The only things that can exert such counterpressure are:
1 – the normal inertia and friction of any transactional system (and the Board’s Chair, Martha Lane Fox, made her name in realising the internet’s potential to remove those);
2 – policy and governance.
On the strength of its skills profile, this Board looks set to continue Martha’s work, by identifying and removing inertia and friction in the e-delivery of government services. What I don’t see there are the advocates of citizen and consumer rights (including, but not limited to privacy), or the specialists in translating between privacy-related policy statements and technological reality. It is not clear to me who, on the Digital Advisory Board, will see “privacy by design” as a priority – and experience has taught us that when privacy is not seen as a design objective from the outset, bolting it on as an after-thought is both ineffective and inefficient.
I hope the DAB recognises, from the outset, that “quality user experience” does not mean “ensuring the user is not scared off by any mention of privacy or consent”. There are already too many service providers who take that approach. We don’t need e-government to adopt it too.
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