As Britain becomes digital, Adrian Moss, head of Web 2.0 at Parity, calls for better online engagement at a local level.
Earlier this year, the government announced plans to appoint a 'champion' to promote digital inclusion. Martha Lane Fox, the digital entrepreneur and founder of Lastminute.com, was unveiled as the person who would lead plans to bring the web to the socially disadvantaged.
But while a programme designed to make the web more accessible is certainly commendable - and perhaps integral to the digital future of Britain - the government must make sure it is ready for what it is creating. If the plan is a success, four million more people will be digitally savvy and connected by 2012. However this achievement could prove to be a double-edged sword. Greater competence, awareness and ability will lead to a greater demand for online services, and a higher level of standard expected for the quality, accessibility and effectiveness of those services.
With this being the case, the public sector must ensure it is ready for the digital revolution. Public services - particularly at a local and regional level - must be fully available, fully accessible, and fully effective over the web. But at the moment, it's often the case that information is difficult to access, and transactions are tricky to perform.
Much is made of central government's online strategies, but what is really needed is investment at the grass roots level. Local councils should be given access to money and resources that would allow them to deliver more services online, allowing local residents to perform transactions over the Internet, use the council's website as a central point of information for the area, and engage more effectively with the people at the top and the overall decision-making process.
The benefits of increased online presence and focused digital strategies are wide-ranging. Firstly, it's an excellent way to convey information - be that announcements about school closures due to swine flu or bad weather, accidents and road blockages, or advertisements for charity events, summer fetes and bonfire nights. It's a cost-effective, time-efficient way of transmitting information to a large audience.
Secondly, it can cut costs. With the public sector now facing the kind of belt-tightening experienced earlier in the year by private business, cost-cutting is increasingly important. An interactive website can allow customers to perform transactions for such things as council tax or penalty notices online, without having to rely on a personally operated phone system or substantial administrative process. Some sites allow citizens to report problems such as graffiti or an abandoned car.
A well-populated website can act as a point of reference for all local information and community news, even allowing residents to view planning applications rather than submit a request to the authority which then needs following up. This significantly reduces the administrative burden and cuts the need for so much help-desk support.
Finally, an online strategy helps central and local government departments engage with their public. For example, instigating online conversation can help local authorities get direct feedback from residents about how council money is spent - which ultimately improves the standard of services delivered overall.
If the government's targets for a more digital Britain are to be met, the public sector must ensure it can handle, and respond to, an increasingly online population. Services must be in place before the people arrive to use them.
This was first published in October 2009