Online only services: 1/46th of the cost?

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.

2 thoughts on “Online only services: 1/46th of the cost?

  1. The problem I see is what everyone seems to ignore… the fact that the current infrastructure can’t cope. We can’t expect to get people online when nearly every website has timeouts. A third of the country can’t get a fit for purpose connection. Presumably the people online writing blogs and making policy decisions have decent enough access, but don’t forget the millions that don’t. Many around here still stuck on dial up. Its time to cut through the BT and Ofcom BS and light the fibre to the rural areas. Once that is done the urban areas will get a better connection too. This can be done by the communities if government can make a level playing field. BT are too keen to protect their copper cabal that is holding back innovation and crippling our budding digital economy. A phone network can never deliver next generation access. We need fibre to the home for everyone.
    just saying.

  2. Hi Chris & thanks for this – you are absolutely right of course. Connectivity and infrastructure are fundamental issues, without which arguments about meaningful vs tickbox engagement are a bit pointless.

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