It’s always been the elephant in the room when it comes to ‘digital by default’ policies across government. From the government perspective, shifting to digital channels makes perfect sense, especially in an age of austerity.
The UK government, for example, has a target of putting 82% of all central government transactions online. This would save an estimated £1.8 billion a year, ministers estimate. Squeeze costs out, engage with citizens via tech-enabled channels, pursue the holy grail of self-service delivery – lovely stuff.
The problem has always been when you look at it from the other side of the fence, from the perspective of those on the receiving end of those public services. Do they want to receive their services in this way? And more to that point, are they able to?
In the UK, I’ve been able to file my tax return online for many years now. I’ve never done so. I’m online literate, have access to the internet and a relatively simple tax position. I’m the ideal candidate to take advantage of this services. But I don’t. I pay an accountant to do it. More fool me perhaps. But I just don’t want to do this.
On the other hand, the online process for renewing my drivers licence was so much simpler than the last time I did so when I had to turn up at a physical office bearing all sorts of bits of paper and wait in line etc etc.
So one of those is convenient for me, one less appealing. But crucially both are essentially lifestyle choices on my part. I’m not being forced to use them in order to get by on a day to day basis.
But in society there are those who are not able to make such choices and who are far more dependent on the apparatus of the state than I have ever been. People on social security benefits, for example, the target demographic for the UK government’s ongoing IT nightmare, Universal Credit, which is predicated on recipients of payments accessing them digitally.
The problem is that there’s a body of evidence to suggest that people risk being digitally excluded from claiming their benefits. According to a BBC Media Literacy study, 21% of people can’t use the web. 14% of people don’t have internet access at all, so 7% do have internet access but don’t use it in ways that benefit them day to day.
Inclusion or delusion?
In an attempt to reduce these numbers, the UK government has today launched a Digital Inclusion Strategy which aims to reduce the number of people who are offline by 25% by 2016, essentially bringing 2.7 million more people online in the next two years and then reducing the proportion of people who are offline by a further 25 percent every two years after that.
By April 2016, the aim is to have fewer than 8.3 million people (16% of the adult population) offline and by 2020, the number of people who lack basic digital skills is pitched to be to around 4.7 million (less than 10% of the adult population).
The UK government acknowledges that there will be those who will never make it online. It estimates that some 2.6 million people in the UK have basic literacy problems which makes digital literacy all the more unlikely. This leads to the grim conclusion that between 3.5 to 4 million people (6.8% to 7.9% of the adult population may never have basic digital capabilities.
Critically these people are often among the most vulnerable in society. According to the government’s own accepted figures:
- 37% of those who are digitally excluded are social housing tenants.
- 44% of people without basic digital skills are on lower wages or are unemployed.
- 33% of people with registered disabilities have never used the internet.
- Over 53% of people who lack basic digital skills are aged over 65, and 69% are over 55.
As part of its thinking, the UK Cabinet Office has identified 4 main challenges that people going online:
- Access – the ability to actually go online and connect to the internet.
- Skills – to be able to use the internet.
- Motivation – knowing the reasons why using the internet is a good thing.
- Trust – a fear of crime, or not knowing where to start to go online.
Source: Digital Inclusion Strategy /Cabinet Office
With these in mind, the UK government’s Digital Inclusion Strategy aims to:
- stop activity that adds little or no value, including fragmented government spending.
- provide greater support to those initiatives and organisations that make a difference.
- create the environment for better, stronger joint working between people, business, charities and public sector.
In the strategy document, the point is made that this is not an issue that can be tackled by the government alone:
Digital inclusion is about overcoming all of these challenges, not just one. Equally, with so many challenges, government cannot address this alone. The government and its partners already do a lot to help promote digital inclusion. But this is not joined up enough and having the impact it needs to.
The strategy is for individuals and organisations involved in helping people develop their digital capabilities. This includes government departments and local councils. Some matters covered by the strategy are devolved and reference should be made to the devolved administrations for more details about how this strategy relates to them.
Ten point plan
So what, precisely, is going to happen? Well, there’s a ten point plan of action included:
- Make digital inclusion part of wider government policy, programmes and digital services
- Establish a quality cross-government digital capability programme.
- Give all civil servants the digital capabilities to use and improve government services.
- Agree a common definition of digital skills and capabilities.
- Boost Go ON UK’s partnership programme across the country. Go ON UK is the UK’s Digital Skills Alliance.
- Improve and extend partnership working across public, private and voluntary sectors.
- Create a shared language for digital inclusion.
- Bring digital capability support into one place.
- Deliver a digital inclusion programme to support SMEs and VCSEs,
- Use data to measure performance and improve what government does.
A lot of these action points are inward-facing, about government putting in place its own agenda. Some are welcome – getting civil servants to understand digital implications is clearly a good thing!
A lot of the rest depends on the work of the private sector and voluntary and charitable organisations such as Go ON UK.
For example, grocery retailer Asda will launch a national programme of free face-to-face advice sessions on going online in 60 of their supermarkets, with the Tinder Foundation and EE has said it will hold a ‘National Techy Tea Party Day’ in all its shops on 9 September to provide support for those seeking help with their digital skills.
Admirable though these gestures are, they are just that, gestures. A Techy Tea Party Day isn’t going to make much of a dent into the digital skills crisis.
The bit about creating a shared language is bordering on the patronising and utterly misses the point. The argument is:
How we talk about being online, the internet, the World Wide Web and digital services can be daunting and confusing for those taking their first steps online. Research commissioned by the BBC, Lloyds Bank and Go ON UK indicates that we need to change the way we talk about the internet and going online.
Nonsense. The language used isn’t what keeps people away from the internet.
Lack of access does. Lack of investment in broadband infrastructure does. Lack of basic literacy skills does.
Not the words you choose to use to describe something. I can feel a talking shop coming on and a triumphant declaration of a new lexicon. Meanwhile the single mum on the housing estate in Liverpool still can’t get online to access Universal Credit.
With in mind, I’m more impressed by the creation of digitalskills.com as a centralised resource for people and organizations to tap into to get practical guidance on digital skills and best practice.
But overall there’s a lot of posturing and positioning and high-minded statements of intent and not a huge amount of practical detail in this strategy.
Ultimately I don’t to sound too down on all this. It’s well-intentioned and anything that can be done to reduce the digital deficit is to be applauded.
The Cabinet Office concedes:
This strategy is just the start. We have a lot more to do in helping people and organisations gain access to the internet and develop the skills, motivation and trust required to become digitally capable and confidently use the internet.
But the fact remains that the objectives and targets are based around “everyone who can be digitally capable”. leaving a lot of wiggle-room around those who can’t. What I want to know – and what isn’t included here beyond some references to the idea of assisted digital – is what happens to those people?
Today is all about the announcement, the PR quotes and the razzamatazz of the launch of the Strategy and the accompanying bite-sized Charter.
The basic principles and points being made are sound, even if they have all been made before in various forms.
The devil is in the detail. The headline-line friendly goals have been pitched; now let’s see how they’re delivered on in practice. If the practical delivery isn’t there to accompany the soundbites, then inclusion will be a delusion.