For a commercial organisation, increasing the number of visitors to a website is seen as a good thing. It means consumers are visiting to browse and purchase goods and services, or to click on ads, driving revenue, profits and growth. But does the same dynamic apply to government websites?
Think about it a different way. Would we be impressed if a government boasted about printing additional paper forms to keep up with demand? Or that a government call centre was taking on more staff to service the volume of calls being received? Or that this year a bumper number of letters had been sent and received, requiring an expansion in government post rooms across the country?
These are generally indicators not of success, but of poor service design. They signal government transactions so complex, broken and exasperating that they necessitate multiple, often repeated, interactions between government and citizens. Every pound consumed by these pointless frictional overheads is another pound stolen from the frontline. And yet bizarrely we see governments boasting of how their websites are attracting increasing numbers of visitors - missing the very point of what public service design thinking should mean.
The ever-growing use of government websites is a possible indicator of public services that have merely substituted paper forms with their online doppelgangers - with the result that citizens and businesses end up forced online to fill in forms using a keyboard and mouse instead of a pen and paper. Yet the need for website interactions should be reducing dramatically as services are designed to be truly digital - not increasing.
The change of medium - from paper to websites - was only ever meant to be an interim cost-cutting phase, not a destination. No-one voluntarily wants to wrestle with a government form, whether it's online or on paper. In an ideal world, government services will be so well-designed they will become frictionless: citizens and businesses should only rarely need to go online, mainly to check on and maintain their personal data.
After 20-plus years spent in a Groundhog Day cycle of migrating and re-presenting existing forms and processes online, it's time for governments to reject this outdated 1990s web-centric theology and adopt a digital era one, promoting data-enabled service design. Sure, an online form may cost less than paper. But the significant benefits of digitising government don't come from putting services online as a paper-substitution exercise, but by fundamentally rethinking their design to make them seamless, invisible and efficient.
Take the UK's Real Time Information and Universal Credit. If they eventually deliver their original vision a whole skip load of Victorian HMRC and DWP forms and interactions will become obsolete, reducing the entirely unnecessary frictional processes currently massaged via websites, call centres and face-to-face meetings. Government websites should be challenged and where possible obsoleted in the same way as the paper they originally displaced.
The true benchmark of how well governments are genuinely moving into the digital age is not the growing use of online forms - but the eradication of the frictional, emotional and social costs associated with poorly designed services.