Digital Government May Exclude 4 Million U.K. Citizens

National Audit Office study finds 17% of citizens don't use the Internet and may be unable to access services under "Digital by Default" plan.
The U.K.'s independent scrutinizer of government spending says it's worried the push to a "digital by default" strategy for access to the bulk of British public sector services will leave too many citizens behind.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has added its voice to a growing chorus of concerns about the risk of excluding too many British citizens by ignoring the "significant numbers of people who cannot go online or do not wish to do so."

It's asked members of the public if they want to work with the public sector this way, and results are mixed. Of those it surveyed, 17% did not use the Internet at all, and 72% of that group say they don't intend to go online. (The survey covered 3,000 individuals and 130 businesses and brought in comment from eight focus groups.)

The NAO estimated, based on these numbers, that the British state might need to work around as many as 4 million people in England likely to need help in using online services. It warns central government planners to put plans into action to avoid a "them and us" digital divide problem.

[ Learn why concerned citizens may save local services. See Crowdfunding Pulls U.K. Government Projects Off Scrap Heap. ]

The government says annual cost savings to the state of up to £1.8 billion ($2.7 billion) a year could be garnered by more use of online delivery (mainly by having fewer civil servants in physical offices helping with inquiries).

And in its new study, "Digital Britain 2: Putting users at the heart of government's digital services," the body notes that there is broad support for the drive to try and save public sector costs by greater use of online services. "The government has established firm leadership of its digital agenda and its strategy is based on sound evidence that a high proportion of people and small and medium-sized businesses have the access and skills to use online public services," its report said.

However, it then raises doubt about the amount of hard cash such an approach can be reasonably expected to claw back for the Exchequer. It says Whitehall has assumed a very high figure, 82%, of transactions with public services will be carried out online -- matching the proportion of the population currently online (actually 83%, it reported).

But online use of some services falls short of that level, despite the widespread access to the Internet by the British public. This is despite not just common access to the Web; it may also be down to a lack of ability by most people to carry out the kind of transactions required by online public services.

In its research, it tested the government's thesis that the public agrees digital is superior than phone, post or face-to-face contact with civil servants for the kind of services, like driving license renewal, the government assumes.

For 20 public services, the proportion of transactions actually now carried out online by taxpayers surveyed varied wildly -- from less than 50% for one service to more than 80% for other services.

What's holding these numbers down? The NAO says many people still do have a preference for face-to-face contact, even where they are aware of the possibility of using the service online. That's being allied to what it calls a "general unwillingness" to provide personal information online, while another cause is simply low awareness of the type of online public services available.

Functionality of current government attempts to lure people online may be an issue, too. The study says users of public services often find it hard to register for online services, recommending the government look to offer a more "straightforward, secure way" to allow users to identify themselves online while preserving their privacy. This may, it suggests, be provided by a federated identity assurance scheme.

The NAO's head, Amyas Morse, said "online working is increasingly central to the delivery of government services and rightly so."

But, he added, "it is important to remember that there are significant numbers for whom this does not work -- who cannot, or do not want to, go online. As the government moves towards 'digital by default' services, these people will need help to go online and continued access to services in the meantime," he warned.

The government quickly responded to the report's findings.

It said the study offers "endorsement of the ambition and leadership we have demonstrated on the digital agenda." It also said the data demonstrates that making public services digital by default is a "vision supported by most people and businesses, and that there is sound evidence that they have the skills and inclination to go online."

As to the worries raised about digital exclusion, it promises to develop "assisted digital support for 23 exemplar digital services by 2014-15," and that as part of this work, "We will reflect on the report's recommendations on how to communicate these plans to people who are offline and ensure offline users know where to get it."

Whatever solution chosen, of course, if Brits just don't see the value in an online alternative to working with the government the ways they now do, that £1.8 billion ($2.7 billion) savings figure may simply never get delivered.

"We are developing digital services that are so good people will prefer to use them, while ensuring that those who are not able to go online are given the support they need to do so," promised Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.

A well-defended perimeter is only half the battle in securing the government's IT environments. Agencies must also protect their most valuable data. Also in the new, all-digital Secure The Data Center issue of InformationWeek Government: The White House's gun control efforts are at risk of failure because the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' outdated Firearms Tracing System is in need of an upgrade. (Free registration required.)

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