The Digital Switchover of Public Services

The Digital Switchover of Public Services

Naturally there’s been much debate on the blogosphere about the new Digital Britain report. It’s the final substantive chapter (‘The Journey to Digital Government’) that’s caught my eye and, arguably, has the greatest social policy implications.

It concedes that the first phase of e-government reform up until 2004-5 had a limited impact, albeit putting a positive spin on this, summing the period up as  ‘driving Britain [...] from being a laggard’. It notes that the proportion of public services online only reached ’75% plus by 2005′* and admits that:

‘in many cases they were an online replica of the offline service, based around the silos of providing departments rather than the actual public services needs of the citizen’.

It argues a second phase – ‘Government on the Web’ – kicked in from 2004-5, as key outcomes from the Transformational Government report helped drive more co-ordinated use of ICTs across government and deliver:

‘effective savings, based on process re-engineering of online delivery of public services’.

The report then argues a third phase of e-government should flow from the broader changes outlined in Digital Britain:

‘not merely Government on the web, but [...] Government of the Web‘.

This phrase is awkward – it implies questions of how the web itself is governed in my mind – but is meant to capture the idea that:

in order to maximise the opportunity afforded by universal broadband for the delivery of services, digital Government will need to become genuinely “of the web”, not simply “on the web”. That means designing new services and transaction around the web platform, rather than simply adapting paper based, analogue, processes. It also means integrating web, telephone and face-to-face channels.

Again this could be read as an admission that the e-government agenda to date has failed to deliver the high quality transactional online services it has long promised. However, there is also something more subtle here that builds on the agenda that began to emerge in Transformational Government.

The early e-government policy documents made clear that electronic services were an addition to face-to-face offerings. When the Gershon Review  questioned the financial viability of this approach, the idea of forced migration to electronic channels for some customers gained prominence. Transformational Government took this thinking forward. I have argued elsewhere that:

while the first phase of e-government had focused on giving public services an online presence, the second phase was committed to making the presence of public services more of an online one‘**.

The third phase of e-government that Digital Britain promises to unleash seems to represent a further hardening of this position. Indeed, the report argues that:

Discussion with stakeholders inside and outside Government has demonstrated a consistent view that Government should develop a roadmap to a new programme of Digital Switchover of Public Services. ***

This programme, they suggest, should result in ‘online being the primary means of access’ but the report notes that there needs to be a ‘safety net in delivery for those unable to access the service online’. 2012 is earmarked as the start date for Digital Switchover of Public Services, with every department being asked to identify at least two services to form part of this programme before this date.

Given the fiscal situation, it seems likely – whoever wins the next election – that the idea of replacing face-to-face services with electronic services will gather pace. There are two obvious concerns from a social policy viewpoint.

The first is how the Digital Switchover of Public Services will impact on services for those without internet access. If the non-digital safety net is an inferior service – which seems likely – then a two-tier service emerges. And, as the IPPR noted almost a decade ago****, the most disadvantaged are likely to be those receiving a disadvantaged service. This is a tricky position for a public service adopt.

The second issue flows from the first: how (and how far) can the government address the digital divide? At times, Digital Britain seems to imply the rolling out the broadband network to all homes will address the access issue. Clearly this is not the case and, to be fair, the report acknowledges this in many places; indeed, it reinforces the government’s commitment to tackling the digital divide, with Martha Lane Fox to be appointed as a high-profile Champion for Digital Inclusion.

But, we know that there is a substantial core of people who are unlikely to be easily coaxed into using the internet, including many who simply cannot afford access or lack the necessary skills. A key lesson from phase 1 of the e-government agenda – which was accompanied by a drive to deliver universal internet access by 2005 – was that there is no simple technical fix to the digital divide: campaigns to address digital exclusion need to be part of broader strategies to address social exclusion.  And, as phase 1 showed, a comprehensive policy here is neither cheap nor likely to meet its targets with ease.

The social policy risk of Digital Britain is clear.  A  government with an eye on the potential cost savings will power ahead with the Digital Switchover of Public Services. Meanwhile, a rather modestly funded digital inclusion agenda will be left to pick up the pieces, undertaking worthy but small scale work at the local level.

Hopefully this will not be the case, but Digital Britain does little to reassure on this count. The digital inclusion agenda slipped to the margins in the second phase of e-government, becoming primarily a local concern rather than a national one. As we enter the era of fiscal austerity, it is not difficult to imagine that the once generous funding for local government and voluntary sector digital inclusions programmes will start to dry up.*****


* As an aside, this is well short of the 100% by 2005 target Blair had set and the first time I’ve seen the 75% figure in black-and-white. Most documents at the time hinted that the target was much closer to being met with 96% being commonly mentioned.

** Hudson, J. (2009) ‘Information Technology and Social Security’ in Millar, J. (ed) Understanding Social Security (Second Edition). Bristol: The Policy Press.

*** Which stakeholders they mean is unclear – only IBM are mentioned at this juncture!

**** Tambini, D. (2001). Universal Internet Access: A Realistic View. London: IPPR.

***** All this is likely to be particularly so if the Conservatives win the next election and regional bodies are slashed in a bonfire of the QUANGOs.