The accessibility challenge for 'digital by default' public services

Is the Government Digital Service spending its £50m budget for 'assisted digital' in the right way?

When Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, announced that the Cabinet Office needed to move forward with its plans to support people with access problems using online services, the idea of “assisted digital” seemed to herald a new digital democracy.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) was given a £50m budget to deliver assisted digital as part of its move to make public service delivery “digital by default”.

Six months down the line however, the holy grail of digital inclusion is shining less brightly for some. Can we be sure the impressive price tag is being invested in the best interests of the most digitally excluded and marginalised?

Tailored to the most vulnerable

Hodge was commenting on recently released figures from the National Audit Office showing that, of the 17% of UK citizens who don’t use the internet, around half – some four million - are disabled and a similar number are 65 and over. It is vital therefore that whatever assisted digital provides, it must be tailored to the needs of the most vulnerable members of the community, particularly with an ageing population and the inevitability of related disabilities like vision impairments and arthritis.

In contrast to the user-centred approach that we were anticipating, the government’s Assisted Digital Action Plan has adopted a compartmentalised, departmentalised mindset, risking duplication of time and money.

By focusing on significant “exemplar” services - 25 selected online transactions ranging from electoral registration to student finance and PAYE - attention is being diverted and divided between departmental digital strategies across Whitehall, instead of targeting the issues that are common to all those with accessibility needs.

Meanwhile GDS is busily engaging in conversations on behalf of those departments with a plethora of private, public and third sector agencies from whom it will, in the future, procure the delivery and support of the assisted digital services required.

User need

Departments are urged to understand their individual users’ needs, investigate how many possess the digital skills to use the new service independently, and assess how many will need assisted digital support to “channel shift” to the online option. 

But are these investigations likely to reveal any new and startling evidence? We already know only too well that socioeconomic group, age and disability are the main determinants of digital exclusion. We also know how to ensure that websites, apps and online transactions are accessible and inclusive. We can also demonstrate unequivocally that accessibility has a positive impact on usability and hence the take-up of online goods and services. 

It is clear that what is lacking is large-scale, joined-up support - a multi-faceted service that is both consistent and responsive as well as quality controlled and extensive in its reach.

There are exceptional organisations out there that tick some of these boxes, and there are still others whose standard of provision is unparalleled but whose reach is limited or circumscribed in one way or another. Some are constrained to a particular disability group or age category, while others operate within certain geographical limitations. This effectively condemns the user to a postcode lottery where they may or may not get lucky. 

What is required is a “user wins every time” guarantee. Invested in the right way, a £50m pot might just get there. 

The siloed approach being introduced means that while government is working within departmental divisions, service providers are also, for the most part, working completely independently of each other. Surely this makes duplication of effort and wasting of funds virtually inevitable.

There is a chasm between the technology that people have - whether at home or via public facilities - and their ability to use it. What is urgently required is a service designed to help people use technology better, before the gap between the digital haves and have-nots gets any wider.

The dangers of digital by default

In our report, Mind The Digital Gap, AbilityNet highlights the dangers inherent in our increasingly self-service economy – a trend which is typified by the government’s determination to go digital by default

Yes, it’s a commendable method of saving the taxpayer significant sums and trumps face-to-face, telephone and postal transactions in terms of efficiency and convenience, but is the online environment really fit for purpose when millions of people are unable to access it?

Let’s not forget that a rapidly ageing population raises complex issues for digital access. Help offered today may need to be provided tomorrow and again the day after. Older and disabled people may require the same support repeatedly or need different support going forward long-term.

There are many schemes already in place to up-skill and support users struggling at the digital interface, including those from AbilityNet. It is not technical capability that is lacking. What is missing is a joined-up, seamless delivery system coordinating volunteering efforts, specialist advice, training and assessment into a smooth-running operation - a user-centred service which provides help when, where and how it is needed nationwide.

Combine this with fully inclusive digital services that are usable by the widest range of citizens and the government’s £50m blueprint for bridging the digital divide once and for all could become a reality.

Nigel Lewis (pictured) is CEO of national computing and disability charity, AbilityNet.

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