You know how it is. You’re driving down some remote B road in rural Britain and your petrol tank is running low. At last you stumble on some tiny petrol station selling some fabulously obscure brand of petrol such as Anglo or Burmah. When you pull in, the weirdest thing happens — a live human being walks over to your car and offers to fill your tank.
Theoretically, we should be delighted by this. But most of us under 60 probably find it faintly disquieting. Filling a petrol tank is now something we prefer to do for ourselves.
Of course there may be a Freudian explanation for the male urge to fill up. Yet our preference for self-service seems to apply to a lot of other activities not involving nozzles or pumps — such as booking flights, buying books, withdrawing cash or supermarket shopping. Most airlines were convinced until 20 years ago that the travel agent was irreplaceable: now many of us prefer to do the agent’s work ourselves. And most of us would find 1950s grocery shopping ‘and a packet of cornflakes, please, Mr Johnson’ intolerable now we’re used to wandering the aisles ourselves.
In short, technology has led us to expect a certain degree of choice in our everyday lives so that we feel uneasy ceding control to someone else. It’s a trend that has done little to boost our affection for public services since, even when the quality of public service is high, the experience tends to leave you feeling impotent: you can get a pizza to come to your home when you are well, but not a doctor when you are ill.
Understanding this shift in public expectation is vitally important for any Cameron government if they hope to realise their vision for the ‘Post-Bureaucratic Age’. If done well, technologically enabled public service can bring a rare dual benefit: it allows governments to serve the public at a lower cost while improving public satisfaction. Typically, the user of an interactive service readily sacrifices a certain amount of effort or time in return for more tailored or customised treatment and a greater sense of control.
In truth, I don’t know how much public money can be saved through e-government. Much of the public sector consists of things such as policing, education and healthcare which do not offer instant potential for automation. But e-government has immense potential to introduce new interfaces for public services which make the experience much more engaging and less disempowering. You’ll know what I mean by this if you have recently renewed your driving licence online. It’s an achievement as much about psychology as technology. But it brings with it a peculiar governmental challenge. Success in the Post-Bureaucratic Age will come less from having two or three big ideas and more from implementing many hundreds of small ones. Ministers newly in charge of large budgets may be dangerously tempted to attempt large-scale grandstanding, forgetting that the devil is in the details.
That’s really the most important thing to remember about the digital revolution. Although we are all busily seeking out the next big thing, the real miracle of the internet age is that it is one great big idea which makes possible millions of great little ideas. A different kind of public sector culture may be needed to make the most of this.