Back to Basics: What the public values most is time

Does technology make our lives better? My answer, is, “yes, but…” Our relationship with technology is filled with ironies.

Social media makes me more connected with my friends, but my Blackberry buzzing away in the evening makes me less connected with my own family.

The PC, Internet, and increasingly robust productivity tools have empowered the average office worker to do more in a day than I’m sure my grandfather could do in a week, but we’re all working more hours than ever because expectations have increased just as fast as productivity.

At a conference on digital engagement [website, event landing page] last week in London, many of the ironies and challenges society faces with advances in technology were discussed. One presenter shared a survey that showed that the average U.K. citizen felt more ‘short on time’ than ever. Many presenters shared disturbing information on the social injustice that results from “digital exclusion” which we refer to in the U.S. as the “digital divide” where many lower income people lack the access and knowledge to benefit from technology.

I took many lessons from the conference, and I want to share two that I think are relevant to those of us working in technology in the public sector:

  1. Access is critical:

    Technology access is increasingly a basic human right in western society. We can’t force people to use technology, but the social injustice that results from lack of access is too serious to ignore. One speaker emphasized that central government’s role in the U.K. is not to provide “the fastest possible speed of connectivity,” but to focus on “universality of access.” I agree. New evidence may emerge about the benefits of higher speed broadband, but given budget constraints, it only makes sense to start with a focus on ensuring that that everyone who wants access to a PC and the Internet can get it.

  2. Wanting it is as important as having it:

    If technology saves people time and makes their lives better, more people will take advantage of whatever access they do have.

    As we role out new and improved services, we need to remember how short people are on time. When we build capabilities for digital communication with the public, online civic participation, and online services, we need to make the tools useful if we want them to get used.

    That means that our top priority should always be using technology to make it less time consuming to interact with government. It is always interesting for us working in technology to build tools for citizens to do complex things online (look up government spending information, provide input into policy, review political donations by zip code, see a map of crime patterns, etc.), but I think it’s important to balance our desire to provide complex services with the need to make the basic services and communication capabilities easy and efficient for citizens to use. To me, the basics are making government information easy to find and use and making the most common and critical daily interactions with government (paying taxes, tapping basic services, paying fines, receiving public health information, staying up to date on roads and public transit) as efficient as possible.

At our company, we believe that our service is most valuable when it is used to help government reach people who would not have had the time to walk to city hall, show up at a town hall meeting, or read a government publication before the Internet and digital communication services like what we provide existed. With technology constantly improving and giving us opportunities to do complex and amazing things, the conference was a good reminder of this important starting point – the basics.