Digital by default: The simple step you can take to accelerate success

The Smart Cities Council has added a new chapter to the Smart Cities Readiness Guide, the handbook for urban transformation. “Digital City Services” explains how cities worldwide are converting their paper, phone and face-to-face interactions to digital. When they do that, they achieve “happier for less” – spending less to make citizens more satisfied.

To help you make the transition – and to avoid the pitfalls – we’ve adapted a portion of that chapter below. It explains why “digital by default” is an important forcing function. And it warns you of a common mistake.

The link at the bottom will take you to the chapter, where you can read about 17 kinds of digital city services and 6 best practices from cities that have already made the switch. – Jesse Berst


In virtually every aspect of modern life, people have come to prefer digital services and their ability to provide 24x7, self-service access. We shop in our browsers, bank with our phones, check into flights on a kiosk. Companies love this trend. Every time you use a digital service, you’re saving that company money.

Automated teller machines (ATMs) were an early example of this phenomenon. It costs a bank far less to handle a transaction by ATM than in person. Yet people prefer self-service so much, that many banks charge customers a fee to access an ATM.

Citizens prefer self-service and 24x7 access in their government interactions as well. And since it costs far less to do things digitally – up to 50 times less according to one study – governments that go digital save money at the same time they boost satisfaction.

It’s about commitment
"Digital by default” is a commitment to deliver all services through digital channels. It was pioneered in the United Kingdom and has since been adopted by dozens of national, state, provincial, county and city governments.The goal is to (eventually) give citizens digital access to every city service.

"Digital services are much more convenient because they can be accessed whenever you want them," explained UK Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude when Digital by Default was launched in 2012. “They are also much more efficient, saving taxpayers' money and the user's time.”

In 2012, Britain’s Society of Information Technology Management surveyed 120 cities to produce these estimates of the relative costs of delivering services: Face-to-face: US$13.84; Phone: $4.54, Online: $0.24.

When they provide services digitally, city governments get a bonus: valuable data. For the first time, they can measure exactly when, where and how customers are using those services, so they know which ones are a success and which need to be upgraded or dropped.

That’s why deciding to be “digital by default” may be the simplest step a city can take to accelerate its smart city success. DbyD doesn’t mean a city changes everything overnight. It simply means that it commits to eventually adding a digital option to all of its services.

Once you make that commitment, you can begin lining things up to fulfill the promise. You can build out your citywide communications network. You can tweak your legacy applications to deliver data in formats that pour into digital services. You can choose a platform for building web and mobile applications. The requirement to (eventually) do everything digitally is a powerful forcing function.

Be careful to avoid this pitfall
Be careful – “digital by default” does NOT mean “digital only.” Even in the developed world, roughly 20% of the population does not use the Internet regularly. Council Lead Partner Deloitte has a “Deloitte Digital” practice that helps public and private sector organizations make this transition. They caution that governments will need a program to help those that want to go digital but can’t because of physical or financial limitations.

“You must support citizens to use online public sector services who can’t use them independently,” explains Deloitte’s Samier Abousaada. “Those who cannot get a broadband connection due to their location, or have physical/mental impairments that prevent them from using computers, have as much right to be served and interact in a low-cost way.”

Smart Cities Readiness Guide Table of Contents

Digital City Services Chapter