NAO: 'Digital by default' strategy risks creating digital divide

The government ‘digital by default’ strategy risks alienating members of the public that are unable or unwilling to move online, according to a National Audit Office (NAO) report, with more action needed to highlight the benefits of digital services.

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The government's ‘digital by default’ strategy risks alienating members of the public that are unable or unwilling to move online, according to a National Audit Office (NAO) report, with more action needed to highlight the benefits of its digital services.

The NAO Digital Britain 2: Putting users at the heart of government’s digital services report aims to shed light on the success of efforts by the Government Digital Service (GDS) to move public services online for the majority of the population.  It is estimated that the government could save up to £1.8 million annually by digitising its range of services in plans headed up by the Cabinet Office.

The NAO report, surveying 3,000 members of the public, shows that 83 percent of people are now online in the UK, passing the GDS requirement of 82 percent of transactions being conducted online to bring about targeted savings through digital services. 

However, while the report shows that headway has been made with the digital strategy, there are concerns about providing services to the remaining 17 percent which are not online. Of those, 72 percent do not intend to go online in the next 12 months.

The NAO recommends that more should be done to publicise how new government services can be used by those not using digital services, in order to avoid an ‘us versus them’ divide as a result of the digital strategy.  The survey shows that common factors for those not online relate to age and socio-economic background. 

“Online working is increasingly central to the delivery of government services and rightly so. But 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,” said Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office.

"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.”

There are also a number of barriers that prevent wider uptake of existing services.  For example, low awareness remains for some digital services, while many people still prefer face-to-face contact despite knowledge of an online alternative. In addition, while there were higher levels of trust than for online banking, only 37 percent were happy to provide personal details to the government, a figure which should be improved on, the NAO commented.

It is suggested that the GDS should do more to promote its efforts to transition to ‘digital by default’ services, citing the ability of gov.uk to raise awareness of available online services.

Commenting on the report Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude said: “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.

“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.”

Meanwhile, Shadow Cabinet Minister Chi Onwurah welcomed the report’s claims that more should be done to aid those not using online services.

“I welcome the NAO’s recommendation that Ministers should make it clear how it will help those who cannot or do not want to go online when launching new digital services, particularly given the Government’s failing broadband policies and the low levels of trust found in the report in handing over personal details to the government,” Onwurah said.

“Digital services are an opportunity to deliver public services in new and innovative ways as well as making savings. But with half of over 65s and three quarters of over 75s not online, and most of those not planning to get online, Ministers are leaving many people who rely on face to face services behind.”

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