Should you care about digital by default?

Paul Boag

Digital by default is a phrase being thrown around a lot by the GOV.UK team, but what does it mean and does it apply to your organisation?

As I have been reading through the documentation relating to the new GOV.UK website I keep coming across this phrase “Digital by Default”. However, the definition of the term is left a little wooly. After a bit of digging I discovered that it seemed to consist of two parts:

  • Being digital by default means producing digital services that are so compelling and easy to use that those who can will do so.
  • Digital by default is also a shift in the culture of government so that they think digital first. Only then can they create the outstanding digital services that people will embrace.

It is also quite important to note what digital by default is not. It does not propose replacing services with a digital only option (e.g. closing support lines or moving only to online voting). It is about encouraging those who can to turn to digital first.

In effect this is a form of soft paternalism. Instead of forcing people to adopt digital services, they encourage them to do so by trying to influence users choices.

This makes a lot of sense for the government. After all digital services are much cheaper to run than the alternatives (print and telephone to name but two). Also done right digital self service can empower ‘citizens’ which is perceived as a positive thing.

But what about the rest of us? Is a digital by default mindset of benefit to all organisations?

Is digital by default right for your organisation?

Obviously there are always exceptions, but as a general rule of thumb I would suggest that most organisations would benefit from this way of working.

Most organisations tend to think about digital as an after thought. The fact that organisations develop a separate digital strategy is an indication of this. It is as if digital is something standalone, not intrinsic to the business.

Equally too often digital is seen as nothing more than a marketing tool and so is operated out of marketing. Unsurprisingly if it is run from marketing it will never be anything more. However, in reality digital can be so much more. It can be a recruitment tool, fulfilment tool, product development tool and so on. Reducing it to another marketing channel misses the point.

Why organisations don’t get digital

Part of the problem is that most people in senior management are from the pre-digital era. They may have learnt how to use the web and even been involved in one or two web projects, but they are not an immersed member of the digital world.

In fact the most dangerous of managers are those who think they are digital when they are not. While others may recognise their weakness and get in help, these individuals believe they are already utilising digital to its full potential.

What organisations need is a representative from the digital team sitting at the highest levels. This brings me back to the question of where should the digital team report into? I begin to wonder whether digital teams shouldn’t actually report into any other department, but instead report directly to the board.

My point here is that I am beginning to hear more and more talk about digital by default, but there is a big difference between talking the talk and walking the walk.

“circuit board tree background” image courtesy of