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Getting people and services online.

November 9th 2010

The Manifesto for a networked nation outlines the numerous benefits to all parties of mass use of the internet, and aims to create a rallying cry behind which government, the private sector and the third sector can unite behind the laudable goal of getting everyone online. The government can also gain massively from the efficiency savings of delving services online.

There are 10 million people in the UK who have never been online. Around 750,000 adults in Wales don’t use the internet. Engaging with these people, and persuading them to go online is going to be crucial to the success of the government’s aim for a networked nation. There are a range of reasons why people choose not to use the internet ranging from personal choice to lack of knowledge about how to use it.

Non-users of the internet face increasing disadvantages.  Those not using the internet are unable to access goods and services that are delivered solely digitally, from price comparison services to internet-only offers. They cannot access certain information, be it about health conditions or what is on locally or their bank account balance, nor receive the latest information e.g. news and weather updates.  They may also suffer financial penalties as certain goods and services offer on-line discounts e.g. gas and electricity services, or experience delays sending information by post rather than submitting it on-line.  Last, but by no means least, people miss out on leisure activities and creative development which is increasingly part of the “social glue” for friends, families, communities of interest and society as a whole.

The Manifesto for a networked nation recommends that the public sector create a series of ‘nudges’ aimed at encouraging people to go online. For example it argues that the DWP should introduce an expectation that people of working age should apply for benefits online and have the skills to look for, and apply for work online. There is a risk that ‘expectation’ will swiftly become an obligation once this proposal travels through the filters of negative views of benefit claimants held by policy makers and a climate of gatekeeping by staff. Whilst the benefits of internet use are obvious to those of us who have been using the internet since the days of Netscape Navigator, and clearly online delivery has to be the future of public service delivery, it is difficult to see how adding further disadvantages to the offline community will all of a sudden change behaviours.

If the government wishes to tackle digital exclusion, it needs to offer the carrot as well as the stick. This means securing and properly funding libraries, adult education classes etc, and recognizing the essential role of the third sector and informal networks in helping people learn how to use the internet. It also needs engage with groups like mysociety when actually designing the services, so websites are user-friendly rather than the poorly designed places some of them are at the moment. And above all, design online services from the perspective of ensuring quality. Because if the driving force behind digital inclusion and online delivery is simply the need for savings, it will fail.

 

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