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Watchdog warns UK.gov not to create 'them and us' digital divide

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The National Audit Office has warned that the British government's fixation with its digital-by-default agenda could create a "them and us" mentality that excludes more vulnerable members of society who don't access the internet.

In a report entitled Digital Britain 2: Putting users at the heart of government’s digital services that is published this morning by the spending watchdog, the NAO found that 17 per cent of the taxpayers it quizzed remained offline.

Many of them were from the more vulnerable groups: disabled, poor or elderly.

The findings, which were based on a survey of 3,000 people, 130 businesses and eight focus groups, closely reflected recent figures released by the Office for National Statistics that concluded that more than 7 million Brits (or 15 per cent of the population) had never accessed the internet.

While, the NAO broadly agreed that there was "scope for using online public services more", it also issued a warning to the Cabinet Office - which is spearheading the digital-by-default agenda that is set to radically shake up the welfare system. The NAO said:

[T]here is far to go before digital becomes everyone’s chosen means of accessing public services. There are still significant numbers of people who cannot, or do not wish to, go online.

The government has set out plans to help such people use digital channels but now needs to put these plans into action if it is not to create a ‘them and us’ problem for those not online.

The same report highlighted concerns about submitting personal information via government services on the internet. It found that 37 per cent of those questioned trusted online public services, compared with 34 per cent for banking and 30 per cent for shopping.

The Government Digital Service, which was tasked with building a replacement for NuLabour's Directgov, has estimated annual cost savings of up to £1.8bn by shifting Brits online. However, those figures remain assumptions for now as the NAO is yet to audit the service developed by the still fledgling but increasingly influential Cabinet Office team, which as of November 2012 had 165 bods on its books.

Among other things, the spending regulator concluded that the GDS needed to more closely consider behavourial patterns relating to why Brits are reluctant to carry out government transactions via a website rather than face-to-face.

Apparently, one of the concerns expressed by those interviewed by the NAO was such online services were not "formal" enough. Just because people shop for goods via, say, eBay it shouldn't follow that taxpayers will be just as comfortable inputting more sensitive personal information online. This is intriguing, given that one of the eight ID assurance suppliers chosen by the Department for Work and Pensions to deal with identity-handling for its Universal Credit system is PayPal - which is owned by eBay.

On the ID assurance scheme, the audit office said:

To use online public services people need to be able to trust the government with the information they provide online. The Government Digital Strategy recognises that users of public services often find it hard to register for online services, and that it needs to offer a more straightforward, secure way to allow users to identify themselves online while preserving their privacy.

Therefore there is an Identity Assurance Programme under way in GDS and we were told that this is to develop a framework to enable federated identity assurance to be adopted across government services. The government also told us that this will involve creating a simple, trusted and secure new way for people and businesses to access government services, which will provide assurance to government that the right person is accessing their own personal information.

In recent weeks, the DWP has dodged questions about how it will handle online ID for its Universal Credit service.

Elsewhere in the report, the watchdog found a lack of solid detail about the government's plans to assist those people who remain offline once the digital by default agenda gets properly underway.

This has already been questioned by MPs who are pushing for a debate in the House of Commons about digital exclusion hitting the most vulnerable people - who just so happen to be those who draw most heavily on the welfare system.

But the government has been at best evasive regarding that line of questioning - and at worst outright dismissive of the argument, instead preferring to say that libraries, job centres and other public places will pick up the slack.

Any discussion about home computer and broadband access has completely fallen off the agenda, meanwhile.

That said, according to the NAO's figures, cost was not cited as a major deterrent to those who remained offline. It found that many taxpayers simply did not see the need for an online service when they can carry out government transactions face-to-face or over the telephone.

For those without computers and broadband connections, the watchdog noted that friends and family could help some people who don't have access to the internet - which arguably has the potential to be a security nightmare.

Almost half of those we surveyed who were offline found someone to go online for them. The demand for help may therefore be lower than expected. However, public services must be designed so that people can apply for licences or make payments for others, in a way that minimises fraud. Currently, the government’s approach to assisted digital services does not recognise this.

The NAO, which exists to ensure government spending is kept under control, actually recommended that the GDS needed to raise awareness of the service by marketing GOV.UK to the public. It's unlikely, however, that the Cabinet Office has factored in costs for this.

The Cabinet Office claimed that the NAO's report had "endorsed" the digital-by-default agenda, and said it would work out a better way of explaining its digital plans to taxpayers.

"This report firmly endorses the digital transformation of public services designed around user needs that the government has undertaken. Putting these services online, rather than using face-to-face, postal or phone options, will deliver substantial savings to the public purse, and save users time and money," said Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.

"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." ®

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