Ready for digital democracy?
As the government moves forward with its plans for universal broadband and increased online public services, Intellect’s head of healthcare and central government, Melissa Frewin, asks whether everyone will be willing and able to use digital public services.
Heralded as ‘the government’s strategic vision for ensuring that the UK is at the leading edge of the global digital economy’, the Digital Britain Final Report was published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on 16th June 2009. Like all good reports of its kind, Digital Britain – written by Lord Carter, the then Minister for Communications Technology and Broadcasting – has generated a mixed response and its fair share of controversy. But there can be no doubt that Lord Carter, a successful businessman and the founding Chief Executive of Ofcom, has moved the whole debate forward.
The final report includes plans to ensure there’s a first-rate digital and communications infrastructure and that the social and economic benefits of digital technologies are maximised for the good of all. Speaking at a National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts event in February, Carter said: “The biggest prize of all for Digital Britain is digital public services.” A commitment to ensure the whole population has access to broadband is partly about plans to switch public services over to digital channels from 2012. Moving public services online will offer convenience and flexibility to citizens and – perhaps more importantly in these straitened times – help to secure substantial efficiency savings. Research conducted by the Society of IT Management, which represents ICT managers working in and for the public sector, found that typical web visitors cost an organisation 27 pence, compared with £3.22 for each phone call and £6.56 for each visit in person.
The government has made considerable progress on rationalising the number of public sector websites that are out there. With over 14 million visits each month, Directgov is rapidly becoming the first port of call for people looking for information and services. Digital Britain goes a step further, identifying services that could be ripe for early switchover – such as student loans, electoral roll registration, school registration, redundancy advice processing and debt advice – and setting an expectation that by 2012 every government department will have identified at least two services that they can switch online as part of their broader customer contract strategies. It is an ambitious target, although some might say not ambitious enough; and success will depend on strong leadership. Particularly since Carter made it clear that simply moving existing services online is not enough: “Digital government will need to become genuinely ‘of the web’, not simply ‘on the web’.”
‘Of the web’ not ‘on the web’
The government can’t afford to take a Field of Dreams ‘build it and they will come’ approach. To make its online offering truly compelling, the web will need to be used as a platform – integrated with telephone and face-to-face channels – that can deliver completely new services and transactions. Being able to file your tax returns and apply for benefits online is all very well but frankly not that ‘sexy’; online public services will need to become much more compelling.
If you take the view that technology augments what we as humans do and always have done – communicate and share information – this opens up the possibility of a more radical transformation of services. The Power of Information Taskforce, which was set up by the government last year, has not only been looking at how to ‘use, re-use, create, recombine and distribute’ information; it has also been considering how people organise themselves around information depending on the way it is presented, and what impact this could have on public services. New ways of packaging and sharing information lead to new groupings and communities of understanding, which in turn lead to new ways of solving old problems.
Andrew Stott, recently appointed to the newly created role of Director of Digital Engagement in the Cabinet Office, has been tasked with taking this work forward. He will be working with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, pioneer of the worldwide web, who has been appointed by the Prime Minister as an expert adviser on public information delivery. These appointments are a clear signal of the government’s committment to this agenda. So where might all this take us? A recent government white paper included proposals for all schools to allow mothers and fathers to share advice and information through social networks, with plans for pilots with parenting sites like Netmums and Dad Talk. A social networking approach might also, for example, make it possible to see support for new businesses delivered online by virtual networks of volunteers with real-world experience, rather than through local business link operations.
Dealing with the digital divide
Before there’s a wholesale switchover to online services, the government needs to tackle the quarter of the population that is resisting a move to broadband. Research from Ofcom shows that people not yet using broadband tend to be older, from lower socioeconomic groups or those without children. Importantly, it seems that these groups are, by and large, the people who make more regular and frequent transactions with government. Digital Britain includes the need for a ‘safety net’ for those unable to access services online. If the business case for the switchover of public services to digital channels is going to stack up, the government will need to get the majority of these people online. And failure to do so could risk creating an even more unequal society. Making something like school registrations (which should be equally open to everyone) one of the first services to be switched online could favour the better off. Similarly, pushing online registrations for the electoral roll – which local councils frequently allow through all the available channels – runs the risk of undermining voter turnout rates.
People often cite financial constraints as the main reason for not adopting broadband, but the reality is often much more complex, wrapped up in a number of issues such as fear of technology or of the unknown, a lack of skills and simple lack of interest. There are some good schemes already in place that are trying to tackle these issues and tackle the ‘digital divide’. A Home Access scheme is providing financial support to help families with children get access to broadband and digital equipment, and UK online centres are working ‘to connect people to digital skills and opportunities, using technology to improve lives and life chances’. These are just a couple of examples; there are many more out there, but convincing people who are scared of getting, or simply reluctant to get, online will require a more concerted and coordinated effort. Martha Lane Fox, the founder of Lastminute.com who became the face of dotcom Britain in the 90s and who is now the UK’s Digital Champion, is taking on the challenge with plans to concentrate on encouraging the six million poorest to get online. She will be looking at how “really clever applications of technology could help people get more employment, get more choices, take control of where they live or their own situation in a slightly more cohesive way”.
There are challenges ahead but we should not be deterred. Technology has the potential to transform not only the way that public services are delivered but also the fundamental relationship between citizens and the government. And in this way a Digital Britain could well be a more democratic Britain.
Source: Public Service Britain