Digital – the channel of choice for public services
26 January 2012
By Matthew D'Arcy
Taking government services online presents a range of economic and social benefits, as well as giving government reliable data about what people want from their services. But the digital move will ultimately mean shutting down other channels, Public Service Events' Digital by Default conference was told
Digital public services are getting a lot of praise across both Whitehall and town halls as a means to transform service delivery and to cut costs.
Ministers are so convinced of the value of this route that they want public services to be digital by default. Government digital champion Martha Lane Fox, the online entrepreneur behind this "huge culture shift", says there are major benefits to be had for both government and the individual.
With digital the default position and civil servants now forced to justify why a service cannot be delivered in this way, she says the digital environment offers the UK "one of the only levers we can pull relatively easily in order to fight our way out of the very, very dire economic situation".
She told Public Service Events' Digital by Default conference that digital services offer financial benefits for government, and that this work can benefit "social justice".
People who are online are able to save money, are more likely to find employment, and in the case of older people are less isolated and more confident, she said.
Lane Fox is not alone in this positive assessment. Conference chair Helen Margetts said digital by default could make government "more efficient, more productive" and could make "better government".
A professor at the Oxford Internet Institute, Margetts said digital could make government "more tailored to citizens' needs, to their actual behaviour, to preferences".
She said political engagement was rising rapidly on social media, and as people did more online they left a "digital imprint".
"It leaves huge amounts of real-time anonymous transactional data," she said. "This is data like we have never had before. It's not like survey data. It tells us what people really did. It helps us understand what citizens want and what they are willing to do. It gives us information about hospitals, schools, tax, social welfare and the way that people interact with those agencies."
Roger Donald from NHS Direct said the web could save the NHS tens of millions of pounds every year. With the average cost of visiting a GP at £32, calling an ambulance at £220 and going to A&E around £95, he said: "Online assessments can provide a real cost saving."
But the ability to access services at the click of a mouse, or the tap of a mobile device, might eventually come at a price – the end of some of the more traditional channels.
Local and central government bodies had been encouraged to promote "channel shift" for years, with the low cost of digital service delivery at just pence per transaction, compared to pounds over the phone, and an even higher cost face-to-face.
But the conference heard that the once envisioned multi-channel approach to services was now seen as expensive.
Margetts said there was a general acceptance of the government's digital by default agenda.
But up to a year ago there was "a lot of talk of multi-channels and the obligation to keep multi-channels open as the best way to do things".
She added: "There does seem to be a general recognition now that this is a very expensive road to go down and not always the best way for citizens."
Lane Fox reinforced Margett's observation. Asked by a local authority official whether older channels needed to be "shut off" for savings to be realised, she replied: "Yes, absolutely. That's fundamental to digital by default.
"It's not an option to keep sending people paper when they are perfectly able to use a digital service. It's not an option to keep a call centre going when you see volume go dramatically down. So of course, you have to turn channels off."
Steven Jewell, e-government director at Milton Keynes Council, agreed. "We have to find ways to switch off while enabling in such a way that we don't lose people along the way," he said. "Default is to make (digital) the channel of choice, something your customers really do want to use."
But challenged by one delegate about users who will never be able to use services online, Jewell suggested elements of traditional service access could be kept open for those who really needed them.
"If you are reaching an ever greater proportion of people more cost effectively and delivering service to them, then you will have more time and resources for those people who really can't use digital. They are not crowded out by those people who access those scarce resources, but who don't really need them."
Providing support to those who can't go online is another option. Asked how the public sector can get digital channels to those who are physically or mentally unable, Jewell admitted "we don't have all the answers". But government can get some of the way by using intermediaries – invoking other people who can assist those who have difficulty, he said.
People's ability to use digital channels aside, the government still has a lot to do before digital services really do work as they should. Lane Fox said the public sector was "still on the back foot" compared to private firms in terms of pace of change. But that pace is picking up in the new Government Digital Service, launched to redesign and redevelop online interaction in a way that suits citizens' needs.
More fundamental, perhaps, is the challenge of the 8.5 million people in the UK who have never been online. Reducing this digital divide is the starting point of Lane Fox's work.
"The people who are not online also are the heaviest users of government services," she said. "If we can educate those people, help them, equip them with the necessary skills, then we can also change government fundamentally and dramatically."