The new Government Digital Service website is a great success and has deservedly won prizes, but it is still “lipstick on the face of a pig”. On May 13th I am due to chair a round table to agree the terms of reference for a high level study concerned with the use of IT to aid the reform of public service delivery and have just reread the excellent National Audit Office report on “putting users at the heart of government’s digital services” (see below for my thoughts on some of the highlights but do read the full report – if you just read the summary you will miss some of the dynamite).
Obvious topics for the study include the joining up of duplicated communications spend and the use of smart phone apps to strip out costs and inefficiencies at the same time as improving speed and quality of response. However, the “digital by default” approach requires that those in most need of public services not only have good broadband access, whether fixed or mobile, but can also use the services when they get through.
As a result of the work of organisations like Abilitynet most modern operating systems and browsers have quite good facilities for disabled users. I was therefore startled to be told that DWP, who won an Abilitynet Award two years ago for their use of TexBox , require those who use anything but obsolete and unsupportered operating systems and browsers to claim disability benefit in another way .
This was presumably because their outsource contractors were fully occupied digging ever deeper and more expensive holes with regard to Universal Credits. It does, however, add a very brutal context to the polite but thoughtful National Audit Office report “Digital Britain 2: Putting Users at the heart of government’s digital services“.
The £1.8 billion savings Cabinet Office expects from the Digital by Default Programme assume take up in line with the 80+% who now use the Internet. But the NAO report quotes evidence that many of those who are aware of an online public service chose to use an offline option instead, including 49% of those aged over 65 and 26% of social class C2DE. For the 20 public services covered by its research it found that the proportion of transactions done on-line by those surveyed ranged from over 80% for a student loan or a tax disc to under 50% for a state pension or housing benefit.
Over half those surveyed shopped on-line. Nearly half banked on-line. But less than a third had registered or paid for a Government Service and less that 10% had booked an appointment or claimed a benefit. More-over ease of use and awareness of online options were not the only barriers.
Concerns included fears about making mistakes (notices about penalties for wrong entries did not help), concerns as whether they were dealing with a government department or a fraudster and the need for physical confirmation of transactions. Attitudes to providing information on-line to government are interesting. Overall respondents were less willing to provide information to government than to banks and online retailers (see page 29 of the report) but this is not because they trust it less. 37% were happy to provide data to Government. 17% were not happy, but did so. Only 5% halted transactions because of security fears. By contrast only 30% were happy with providing information to on-line retailers, 29% were unhappy but overcame those reservations and only 7% had teminated transactions because of security fears.
On a more positive note, the NAO reported that government was missing a trick by not recognising that half those with no plans to go on-line themselves receive help to use on-line services from someone else, such as friends, family and work colleagues. The government’s approach to assisted digital services does not recognise this situation. Its routines for handling those with, for example, legal power of attorney to handle the affairs those at most risk of fraud or intimidation, whether on-line or off-line, are even more primitive than those of the private sector. It needs to work much more closely with the charities working in this space and design public services, as recommended by the NAO, so that people can apply for licences or make payments on behalf of others, in a way that minimises fraud.
The NAO makes a number of other eminently sensible recommendations. I particularly liked the polite phrasing of:
“The service should consider whether having each government department develop arrangements for people who need help is the best approach. Those who are offline are more likely to be those who are particularly hard to reach. It is therefore important that they can find information about how to access public services easily. As these people are also likely to be using several public services, there will be opportunities for departments to work together, as required by GDS, to help the offline user.”
“The GDS should increase its behavioural research to see what prevents capable internet users from using online public services more. Our research suggests there are reasons other than lack of awareness, frustration with services or lack of trust. Some users feel that, while a digital channel is appropriate for shopping, it is not formal enough for some government business. GDS needs to understand these behaviours”.
I was recently sent a link to research that appears to show that, as they get older, existing IT users make less, not more, use of the Internet. It is not just a matter of running training and awareness courses for the elderly and expecting the problems of low usage to go away over time. We really do need to look at why those who used to be enthusiasts find it increasingly difficult or unattractive to go on-line as they get older. Hence the importance of programmes like Sus-IT which try to tackle the issues head-on with its programme into the “New Dynamics of Ageing”. I took at look at this area when I was a Corporate Planner with the Wellcome Foundation, looking at the issues of an ageing population – 30 years ago. I never expected that so little practical progress would have been made by the time I would come to need the devices we then evisaged.