Back from my holidays I’ve picked up criticism from the Treasury Committee for HMRC, in particular for its efforts to make services digital by default. I applaud the Treasury Committee for taking the side of potentially vulnerable service users, but I don’t agree with the assumption that digital by default means exclusion by default. My glass is always half full, so I’m more inclined to see digital by default as inclusion by default.
Let’s face facts. Putting public services online saves serious money. It can also drive service improvements and quality improvements. Keeping face to face or telephone channels going for the 18% of offline citizens may be admirable, but it isn’t practical – or necessarily desirable.
Shying away from the online shift isn’t going to make it go away. You (and indeed I) could choose to see that rejecting digital by default is actively ‘excluding’ customers, excluding them from the many general benefits of online life.
What we should be doing is enabling and encouraging more people to use our online services more effectively. That way we don’t leave people behind, and we don’t leave our services behind the times. And yes, we can do both.
I’d like to see all government departments promoting the broader benefits of being online, and actively advocating the use of their online services at a grassroots level. There’s even a network of 3,800 UK online centres in place ready and waiting to help.
The UK online centres network has helped more than 500,000 people get to grips with the internet. 80% of UK online centres users go on to use online public services. 33% of our learners say they have a disability, and over the last 16 months we have helped 150,000 people with a disability to get online. We see again and again the difference being online makes to older people too – helping them stay in their homes longer, providing access to online shopping, prescriptions, support services and family and friends. Not only does this prove to me that ‘vulnerable’ people can use the internet, but also that there’s a real need to help them do so.
If we choose to, we can use digital by default as the solution that will truly close the digital divide once and for all. And I’ve seen how it can work in action. We began working with the Department for Work and Pensions three years ago when they recognised the need to provide online skills to their unemployed customers, and since then our dedicated referral relationship has developed to the point that 20% of our 500,000 new learners in the last 16 months came to us from Jobcentre Plus.
Digital by default may seem a scary prospect to those who are worried about excluding older and more vulnerable people, but for me it’s an opportunity to ensure we can really include them. Maybe the top 2% of vulnerable people will always need face to face or telephone channels. But maybe, just maybe, digital by default is an opportunity for us to make online services work for 98% of real people in real places whenever they need them.