New research paper examining some considerations for switching official communication from paper to digital.

A new paper has been published in the Government Information Quarterly titled “Paper beats ping: On the effect of an increasing separation of notification and content due to digitization of government communication“.

The paper examines a number of factors that influence how likely a recipient is to immediately access a message on receipt of a notification. This is important for anyone considering taking a process digital, because there are assumptions about how people consume paper messages that we don’t notice until we change them.

Simply, when we get a letter, we generally open it, and read it.

This behavioural assumption is built into every piece of legislative communication that goes in the mail.

Email also fulfils the same basic function.

When government agencies digitise however, the need to ensure secure and confidential communications makes email unusable as a messaging method. The general trend in government agencies has been to notify using an unsecured channel, and then direct the user to an official portal to collect their message.

Under this architecture, the act of consuming the notification, and consuming the message are separate. There’s also friction in the form of the need to switch applications and remember logins and passwords. So we can’t assume that the notification and the consumption of the message will happen simultaneously as they do with mail.

This becomes a problem when official communication requires time based actions that are built on paper world assumptions.

This paper examines a number of factors to understand what happens when we make this shift, and how message delivery method impacts the likelihood that a recipient will consume a message quickly on receipt of notification.

The paper considers:

  • Message delivery channel
  • Operational skill level – skills to operate technology.
  • Informational skill level – skills used to search and find with accuracy.
  • Expectation that the message content is negative or positive.

The paper reaches a number of findings:

  • Paper messages have the shortest gap between notification and consumption, and people receiving digital notifications consume messages significantly more slowly.
  • People with poorer operational skills are more likely to access a message immediately.
  • People with better informational skills are more likely to access a message quickly.
  • Expectation has no impact on the speed with which messages were accessed.

It is important to note that this research used a vignette survey methodology. Which is to say that it asked people what they WOULD do in certain scenarios, it didn’t measure what they did do. That said, the Dutch government did provide that more than 1/3 of messages on their myGovernment service remain unread three weeks after notification. While this is anecdotally satisfying, it is not possible to say whether the same is true for paper.

The general conclusion that we need to think differently about communication that happens digitally vs on paper is well made.

My take away from the paper is that agencies that are considering moving to digital should consider that the economics of attention, and of notification and delivery change substantially. A letter costs $1 or more to send, and the best we can do is assume consumption of the message. This means that a certain percentage of enforcement actions will always fail because of routine administrative errors, or missed communications that are unknown until enforcement actions have escalated.

With digital channels, we can notify many times, and gain certainty that consumption of the message has occurred for a fraction of the direct cost. When messages have not been consumed, agencies could put escalation paths in place to higher cost methods of communication that provide similar levels of certainty. Ultimately, this could lead to faster and more certain outcomes.

You can find the paper at the link below:

Paper beats ping: On the effect of an increasing separation of notification and content due to digitization of government communication

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