All year I’ve been talking to anyone who’ll listen about government plans to discriminate against non-internet users. About how the words ‘online-only’ services appear in very small print inside the coalition’s Digital Manifesto. Following last week’s announcement (and blog post) that Universal Credit will be managed online, further plans have been revealed. BBC News reports Martha Lane Fox saying “Government should take advantage of the more open, agile and cheaper digital technologies to deliver simpler and more effective digital services to users, particularly to disadvantaged groups who are some of the heaviest users of government services.”
Yet the previous government’s Digital Inclusion Action Plan recognised that groups already socially disadvantaged and marginalised are also likely to be digitally excluded. “…the dividing lines of social equality are closely aligned to those associated with digital exclusion; age, geography, educational attainment, income, motivation and skills, disability, ethnic minority” (DCMS 2008:12).
The Guardian reports Cabinet Office officials saying “.. the full savings will only be felt if everything is moved online. Leaving even a small percentage of print registrations would be “prohibitively expensive”. Then they say not only will “getting rid of all paper applications… save billions of pounds” but “insist that vulnerable groups will be able to fill in forms digitally at their local post offices.”
No doubt they’re thinking of those ‘vulnerable’ groups living in residential care who have lost the mobility allowances which enabled them to get to the post office in the first place.
It’s possible that if the government is serious about seeing “bridging the digital divide as a key economic priority.” something might be done about the barriers to access; namely the cost of assistive technology, the need for appropriate training and support and the inclusive design of digital data. But they’ll need to be quick. The Internet is fast becoming an increasingly visual medium with reliance on mouse navigation the default. This discriminates against a multiple diversity of those already trying to engage with digital living never mind the 9 million identified as yet to go online.
Money saved is less likely to come from the switch to online transactions and more from people being unable to claim in the first place.