Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office Chi Onwurah is an engineer herself and a former technology chief at the UK’s telecoms watchdog, Ofcom – meaning she has significantly more hands on technology experience than most politicians out there. With a general election looming next year and the prospect of the Labour party moving into government, she could soon be in charge of the government’s digital agenda and driving the UK’s policy on public service reform. Onwurah writes exclusively for diginomica on the government’s recent digital inclusion strategy and how it doesn’t live up to the task of supporting the nation through the transition to online public services…
The Government’s Easter announcement of a Digital Inclusion Strategy has received a mixed reception. Of course everyone is in favour of digital inclusion, in principle, and given the Labour party has been badgering them about it for the last four years, we welcome this final conversion to the importance of making it work in practise. But so much time has been lost in the intervening four years.
I think it is no exaggeration to say that Labour have been pressurising this Government to set out its plans in this area from its very first day in office. One of the Government’s earliest announcements was that Labour’s commitment to Universal Broadband Coverage was being abolished. We wanted to know how they were going to support digital inclusion.
And the Government responded with references to Assisted Digital Provision, Go-on Online, Martha Lane Fox and the Tinder Foundation.
The fact that there was no assisted digital provision was of real concern, especially with the development of Universal Credit, but it was ‘in progress’. For example, over a year ago now (6th February 2013) we had this exchange:
Chi Onwurah: To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office (1) how many assisted digital service providers there are; and where such providers are based;  (2) what resources are offered to assisted digital service providers by his Office or other Government Departments. 
Mr Hurd: The Government currently do not contract with any assisted digital service providers however departments have started market engagement to seek providers. They will work closely with the private sector, wider public sector and the voluntary sectors to enable a network of assisted digital providers.
Naively, I realise now, I thought that that meant there were plans, a strategy, important decisions made, such as, for example, whether to focus on improving citizens skills, or making technology more accessible, or providing non digital options.
But no, this week’s announcement makes it clear that there wasn’t a strategy in place. The reason it appeared muddled was that it was a mix of ad-hoc initiatives and unrealistic promises.
Better late than never you might say. And it does have many good points. But the key test of a digital inclusion strategy must be – how many people it is going to include. And at the outset this strategy is handicapped by the decision to leave ten percent of the population behind on the basis that they will never develop the skills to get online, rather than developing the technology which helps them do so. It is ironic that a Tory minister criticises football clubs for not adapting stadia for those with disabilities in the same week the party announces plans to close the door on the digital game for seven million Britons.
As part of our Digital Government Review we are in the process of organising a workshop with the Citizens Advice Bureau in Newcastle. The stories they tell us echo my experiences in my surgeries but in more, heart rending detail. This is not about missing out on the latest celebrity update or even renewing your driving licence faster than you expected. This is about not having enough food to feed your children because you haven’t been able to sign on online or demonstrate that you have spent the requisite amount of time searching for a job, online.
Then you’re sanctioned, which is to say all benefits are withdrawn from you for eight weeks. That’s all benefits. That leaves you with no money, indeed in all probability, nothing but a food bank to rely on. Or maybe a legal – or illegal – loan shark.
Staff and volunteers at Newcastle CAB are helping local people get on line, and complete benefit applications and other electronic Government forms. This is extra work for the charity, but the alternative is to let people go without food.
This is exactly the sort of support the assisted digital programme should be providing. Indeed the Universal Credit FAQs suggest it is – but facts on the ground say it definitely isn’t.
I know that the responsibility for this lies with the Conservative and Lib Dem ministers who championed on-line services without putting in place the support so many citizens need – the lack of leadership and joined up thinking that has become the trade mark of the Cabinet Office under this Government.
So, whilst I welcome the Digital Inclusion Strategy, I believe it’s too little too late. And the real test will be when my constituents have the help they need to do the tasks the Government requires of them online.