The case for e-Government values your time at zero.

Christmas is a time for talking to “real” people. Among other “setting the world to rights” conversations, I heard a more credible view as to why the proportion of the UK population transacting regularly on-line has not only stopped growing but is falling. But first the data:


Most ICT surveys count “users” of a product or service as those who have used it at least once. They consequently delude themselves and their marketing departments with claims of market size and share. The Oxford Internet Institute Survey is the source of the claim that 70% of the UK population are current users of the Internet and 80% use it to buy products on-line. A naive marketing man might think that meant over half the UK population would be buying on-line during the run-up to Christmas.


What the survey actually showed was that 80% of the Internet users who responded said that they bought on-line more than “never”. If you take apart the responses for daily, weekly and monthly purchases you find that only 16% of Internet users, i.e. only one in eight of the overall population, buys on-line more than “monthly”. The proportion going on-line more than monthly to compare products and services is nearly double, at 28.4%. By comparison the proportion using their banks on-line services more than monthly is impressive: 31.5%. But how many do so merely to check their balance and that they have not been scammed. I note that the daily usage of on-line banking (8.4%) is higher among those who are retired than among students or those in work.


The 2009 OII Survey talks of the UK reaching a “tipping” point in social usage but the peak of buying products on-line more than monthly was in 2007. Then 12% of respondents, including non users, did so. The proportion has since fallen back to 11.2%.


So why do so few use the Internet to regularly buy on-line, while e-mail, social networking and entertainment do indeed appear to have reached or passed the tipping point?


The answer is probably that most commonly available Internet access is perceived to be unreliable, confusing, unfriendly and slow, with erratic response times. It takes less time and effort to ring a supplier and put a check in the post that fight your way through many on-line ordering systems or call centres. The latter only make “business sense” if the time of the consumer is valued at zero. In consequence, more of us commonly browse the Internet to help decide what we wish to buy (and where) than use it to buy on-line. Worse, for those who wish more of their customers to transact on-line, is that the gap appears to be widening. 


“I work mainly from home and spend about six hours a day at my computer or on-line (information searches, e-mail etc.), but …rarely transact on-line … the connections available are so slow and unreliable that the pages are dropped before completion … Similarly I cannot spare the time to fight through automated call centres. Therefore I commonly batch the transactions for myself and those who rely on me, including with banks and building societies, for when I am visiting the city and can speak to someone face to face.”  That is an edited version of the comments of Louise Beaton, Consultant Village Halls Adviser, ACRE.  


If that is the view of an able-bodied computer literate graduate responsible for providing advice to rural community support groups (including bids to use village halls as on-line access hubs), what is the position of the average rural resident: let alone the elderly in most need of public sector care and attention? I could provide similar quotes from those providing similar support for inner city communities where a lack of safe, affordable and usable transport again traps those in most need or near their homes.


The growth in the number of elderly, with a consequent growth in numbers with impaired eyesight and/or hearing, calls into question the growing reliance on screen and keyboard or call centre for contact between those in need of service in the inner cities, suburbs and rural areas and those delivering it to them.


FIPR recently issued a call for submissions to the Ideal Government challenge “Time to say what we want from Government IT”. I hope that those planning submissions will bear the points above in mind. I will blog on my submission in a couple of days.