What with the long Easter weekend and the beginning of a new delivery year (plus the launch of the great Digital Deal funding opportunity) I feel like I’ve barely had the chance to look at Digital Britain 2, a report published by the National Audit Office at the end of March. But with the dust settling here, I thought I’d now share my thoughts with you – and I think the report is significantly underestimating the digital divide, and needs to look harder at support for those who are offline and who have low digital skills if we are to avoid creating a two-tier public services system.
Digital by default service delivery is a bold policy move, set to improve customer service and responsiveness while simultaneously saving money. It has the potential to help millions of people – but only if done properly. It has to be met and matched with equally bold support strategies if we are to avoid a ‘them and us’ approach to service delivery.
I don’t think the report is being bold enough in recognising both the potential issues and the potential benefits of online public service delivery.
>Digital by default service delivery should be seen as a great opportunity to move more people online, by providing them the motivation to improve their skills – as well as to upskill the people that we call “the littles” – those that can do a bit online, but wouldn’t be confident enough to complete online transactions.
The report calls for GDS to increase behavioural research to see what prevents capable internet users from using online public services more, but I think a huge opportunity will be missed if we don’t carry this research out with less capable users too, so we can see what level of support and encouragement they will need to use online services. We already know there’s a world of difference between using Facebook on a smartphone and filling in a complex form online which could affect your benefits, and there needs to be support to help bridge this gap and ensure people aren’t left behind.
The Digital Britain 2 report estimated that there will be 4 million people who will need support to access services through the assisted digital programmes, but without a clear programme to help people to improve their digital skills, I’m sure the number will be much greater. With almost 16 million people in the UK lacking the skills to use computers and the internet – and many of these being the highest users of public services – we’re still underestimating the problem. Proxy users (like friends or family, or even UK online centres) can’t fill this gap, and so we (the people and the Government) need to make a real commitment to supporting them. These proxy users will just mask the issue of digital exclusion, putting extra burden on friends and family members without addressing the skills gap.
One of the most interesting – and perhaps worrying – statistics in the report is that 70% of people who are offline do not intend to go online in the next 12 months, but for the eternal optimist in me this surely means that online service delivery presents a huge opportunity to providing a motivation for them to go online. Three of the report’s five recommendations are about the support the government should provide to those who are offline, and how this should be publicised, but not one mentions the need to support these people to improve their skills. The nearest the report comes is in recognising the huge support provided by friends and family members in acting as proxy users, but filling in a form online for a friend or family member is very different from supporting them to become a confident internet user. By not addressing this skills gap between the capable, the not-so-capable and the offline groups means we will be doing exactly what the report warns again – consigning people with low or no digital skills to second rate public services. Only by supporting everyone to have the skills they need will we avoid there being a “them and us” approach to public service delivery.
Digital by default service delivery is a bold policy move. and so we need bold support strategies to support this. Without putting these in place, I fear that we will just be widening the digital divide.