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01 March 2016

Digital by Default

I prefer Digital by Default, I prefer a quick video chat, IM or email to having to print a form or post a letter. I prefer attending meetings by video rather than wasting hours getting there and I prefer the convenience of doing things online.  I first worked for the "transformational government" agenda as it was called then in UK Central government in 2008 and then later for Direct Gov in 2010 and the Scottish Government in 2014. I believe strongly in Digital by default, going right back to 1992 when I wrote Britain's first guide to getting online.
Yet compared to 1992 some things still haven't changed. We talked then about remote working, teleworking and the benefits it would bring. I wrote a research paper on it in 1994 talking about how the web would be great and encourage collaboration. I invented an early browser in 1990, some of the benefits of that electronic way of working we are still waiting for.
Where are we really at in 2015? We sit in cars in traffic jams and crowd onto public transport to go to jobs, many of which can be done virtually. We get on trains and planes to go to meetings that could be done by teleconference. We spend lonely nights in hotel rooms wondering if that business trip was really necessary. You're reading this remotely. You don't know which continent I was in when I wrote it never mind whether I was in an office, at home or on the beach. It's about the output we deliver rather than where we sit when we deliver it. We realised that long ago with dress codes, I care nothing about what someone wears provide they do the job and I will probably count in single figures the number of times in the rest of my life when I will wear a tie. It's usually about what we do and the difference we make, not the fashion style we have sitting in a office spending most of the day on a phone. Life can be so much better than this - so can society.
The government wants us to do Digital by Default and I embrace this. There are certain jobs in which a physical presence is highly desirable or essential such as a nurse or a special needs teacher. For many others though it should be digital by default first, then physical presence second. There are two ways of working : remotely from a location I choose or  predominantly sitting with my colleagues in a shared environment (with video conferencing for other locations). Sitting in a traffic jam to go to an office just to spend the day on the phone to people in other offices should be confined to the past. We could work like that in the early days of the 20th century thanks to Alexander Graham Bell. In 2015 I would hope we could do much better.
The benefits to society of properly being digital by default are vast. It would eliminate most traffic jams, it would mean less time away from home and hence less childcare costs, it would create a happier workforce, it would cut company costs, it would transform society. We wouldn't be spending billions of pounds on high speed rail links just so people can arrive at a meeting 20 minutes earlier. People in remote locations could do well paid jobs rather than having to move house. People who lose their jobs could get another job without having to uproot their families and change their children's schools. I spent 4 years on the road getting up at 4am on a Monday and returning at 11pm on a Friday just to sit at a remote desk and for those 4 years missed out on my children growing up. Life can be so much better than this. 
I applied for a job with the UK government recently and the job was allegedly promoting a digital agenda and said "extensive travel required". I pointed out as part of my application that citizens can interact with government wherever they are. If citizens can interact with government remotely, perhaps we should be asking why government can't set the example first that it expects citizens to follow. They asked me for a supporting statement in no more than two pages of A4. I responded by asking how many words of an email that represented and why I should be expected to think in A4 terms rather than wordcounts in 2015. Sometimes we need to challenge people to think more creatively. I got a letter in the post today from the council (which has my email address) telling me my recycling options have changed, I think they missed the point. I went to my bank to find they no longer open on a Saturday but rather than correlating the branch's postcode with mine to find they are my nearest branch or telling me via online banking they instead put a note up in the branch's window. We clearly have some way to go to be digital by default and there are some easy quick wins out there. I get invited to Digital Leaders meetings that don't have an option to attend digitally. I do wonder if they get the irony.
How does "digital by default" align with filling up the environment with CO2 emissions to trail up and down the country going to meetings?  Why in 2015 are we contemplating having offices with printers rather than digital by default? We spoke about the paperless office decades ago. There's a simple way to make this happen, turn the printers off for an hour a week, then a day a week then two days a week then for good. The paperless office that we have fought for will become a reality and the trees will thank us for it. We don't need to ask at the bottom of an email "please don't print this" as there will be nothing left to print with. There's nothing like a hardware problem to get a business to update its processes quickly. I worked in a company of over 100,000 people where the directors complained about the paperwork. I said, you are a director - perhaps you can direct people to give you less paperwork? Is the paperwork running the company or are you? The comment, on the heavily moderated not very digitally enabled intranet didn't see the light of day. I will keep making it until I get a response. Sometimes you have to challenge ways of working.
There was an experiment done in the early days of e-commerce to see what people could order online and if they could get by in life ordering things via the computer. Perhaps we should start thinking about the workplace in the same way - I can write this, email, video chat, collaborate from home. My home environment uses modern technology rather than some offices still struggling with Windows XP. I have to ask, if we are Digital by Default can we all just do a little to be digital by default rather than just talking about it. As someone with a disability, I would welcome this too. I have difficulties that public transport can't fix. I have a reduced immunity so public transport presents a health risk. Yet, I am mobile enough to not qualify for a disabled sticker on my car. I don't want to get in a car and add to CO2 emissions and I also don't want to take a car looking at the car in front in a queue every day. I am here on the internet, being productive and digital by default as I am sure are many other disabled people. Who would like to join us in a social revolution?
Original article at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/digital-default-craig-cockburn please also feel free to comment there
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