Picture taken at NDI10 – National Digital Inclusion Conference 2010, on 10 March 2010 – prior to the General Election but already post the reassertion of the current political and financial imperative for public services to 'do more with less'. Although there will always be pressure to reduce budgets, the current round of cuts and revisions had already started across some sectors, with rumours of post-Election reorganisation regardless of the outcome. On the 22nd of that month then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Digital Economy speech outlined a commitment to widen internet access – outlining a programme to deliver super-fast broadband to the UK, coupled with a shift towards online-centric and online-only service provision that promised to save the nation billions.
Today’s announcement by Martha-Lane Fox, the governments UK Digital Champion, to augment government websites and to provide tax and benefit services online, comes then as no surprise.
Matt Brittin from Google (in the picture above) gave the NDI10 network reception address at the end of day one – which included this slide on the theme of saving money by shifting service provision online. During the day the looming reality of shifting to internet only provision of services was talked about by relatively few of us – me, Ken Eastwood, Jim Eastwood and Stephen Whitehead, who followed up the conversation with this post on Digital Refugees and Digital Citizens.
I need to make it very clear that I am totally in favour of digital inclusion. I believe that people who are not able to access the internet and use web-based services with confidence are disadvantaged – socially, economically and culturally. I also think we are only just beginning to tap the huge mainstream opportunities that tech offers for participatory democracy, local community development and service co-design – although there are already some amazing examples and projects around.
One of the critical questions for me is – if services are going to be only available online, what processes and resources do we need to ring fence to ensure we aren’t further disadvantaging anyone, particularly those people who are already disadvantaged enough? It seems an obvious enough approach to take, but as this recent White Paper from the Democratic Society shows – How digital engagement can save councils money, recognising and addressing risk is easy to overlook when we focus on the arguments for. We need to recognise the social and economic juncture we've arrived at and focus on the discussions about how.
We also need to pay attention to the many and hard lessons learnt from the previous tech-dependent ‘economies of scale’ adventures many sectors have enjoyed, so that any shift to online-only provision is budgeted at total cost – including communications, training, support, systems development, potential process change, rather than with figures that only account for web development & service build. It’s very easy to say online services can be better services. The truth is that online services can be as inadequate, frustrating and as poorly designed as face to face services, with an additional layer of problems that need to be solved around different digital confidence levels, language skills, access and navigation. We need proper design, development and implementation processes and a recognition that in the short to medium term these services aren’t necessarily going to represent substantial budget savings.