Revolution not evolution; government moves towards a ‘digital by default’ welfare state

The proposed model for ‘digital by default’ services has been described as revolution rather than evolution. (Directgov 2010 and Beyond: Revolution Not Evolution) Driven by the search for efficiency savings, the proposal is to merge disparate government services into a single point of delivery at the website with all content being produced by a single government department. 

“…we believe its time to move onto a new phase of convergence, by rationalizing and converging all departmental websites and their content…onto shared web services, supported by a set of common web standards.” Directgov Strategic Review (2010: 2)

This reinvention of the government online publishing system is estimated to significantly reduce their web expenditure. Presumably in order to afford the cost of the new system being set up to support the application, award and management of Universal Credit next year. This in spite of the recent System Error  report from the Institute for Government Think Tank which documents “too many high-profile and costly failures” (2011: 2) and where “Most attempts to solve the problems with government IT have treated the symptoms rather than resolved the underlying system-wide problems. This has simply led to doing the wrong things ‘better’”. (ibid p9). 

On the surface, the language of single site delivery is encouraging; documentation refers to functionality, quality, common content standards and building services around people’s needs. It is technically possible to design and deliver content in a way which allows people to choose their preferred mode of access and these plans to achieve digital-only services by 2015 offer a real opportunity for bridging digital divides.

However, there is also the issue of conversion to ‘digital by default’ services. Called ‘channel shift’, this is a massive exercise in behaviour modification. Persuading people to move from face-to-face to digital ways of working is reminiscent of the arrival of virtual learning environments, and the adoption of digital pedagogies, over a decade ago. In 2011, not everyone across the sector can demonstrate confidence and competence with digital ways of working, and this raises questions about the reality of the government plans. While they are likely to achieve their ‘digital by default’ ambitions by 2015, it is unlikely they will have achieved a state of digital inclusion as well.

For want of a horseshoe nail a battle was lost…

Here’s a question – if you’re not digitally active then how do you know you’re being digitally excluded? The irony (or deliberate discrimination) of the government’s Race Online 2012 Manifesto is its invisibility. If you don’t do technology you’re probably unaware of the extent of government plans to move to online-only services. Their focus on broadband access as the answer to digital exclusion is not enough; it’ll do nothing to tackle existing structural inequalities; if anything it will exacerbate them.

I’m not a fan of diary blogs but this weekend I’ve revisited digital exclusion. A couple living with multiple health issues were donated a computer by a local organisation but the power lead for the monitor was missing. It needed POWER:12VDC 3A and the small print on the back of the monitor said  ‘Only use with adaptor: see user’s manual’ which they didn’t have. They had no idea what lead was required, the organisation couldn’t help, the shops they’d tried all said ‘no’ and initial excitement was turning to frustration. I’ve never claimed to be adept with hardware but have the advantage of digital inclusion plus a son who told me ‘use the technology Mum’ so between us we did. I texted him photos of the back of the monitor; he went online, made some phone calls and sent me the location of a shop plus a picture of the transformer required. I found the second hand games shop, doubling as an electrical workshop, and operating a ‘cash only’ policy. It looked unlikely but on the back of a shelf covered in dust was the magic lead.

Currys, Comet and PC World 0 – Local Independent Retailer 100.

The computer was an ASUS52X, loaded with Office 2003, it was fast with a new keyboard and mouse. There was no Internet connection but the computer had capacity and the town has good reception. Sourcing the lead took a couple of hours but for this couple, even when they get their Internet connection, it’s just the beginning. Not everyone has the manual dexterity to manage a keyboard and a mouse and there are going to be access issues there. Then there’s the learning curve which incrementally increases; I began ICT training in Adult and Community Education in the 1990s, pre-Internet, and it was a challenge then, particularly with groups the government now define as socially excluded – in reality having been denied opportunities for participation. To operate with confidence and competence in digital environments today requires multiple skills and knowledge; to stay safe is to know about viruses, scams and phishing, about good online practice regarding payment transactions and being able to judge the authenticity of digital information  – as well as the basics like naming and saving and file management.    

The government’s focus on providing access is technological determinism – believing if you have the means the rest will follow. Those writing digital policy and procedure have the pre-requisite digital requirements and too little experience of being on the wrong side of the divide. As digital divisions are increasingly reconfigured as having complex multi-structural dynamics I worry the real issues will get lost; the reality of digital technology meeting analogue user, where the importance of the correct plugs and wires is only the starting point and after that comes the need for effective long-term training and support. These issues are not going to go away.

Race Online 2012

‘Digital Britain’ has survived the election and the drive to get us all online by 2012 has stepped up a gear. The strap line to the Race Online 2012 website now reads ‘We’re all better off when everyone’s online’ and David Cameron’s letter Martha Lane Fox to remains Digital champion includes the following:  “…the Government is committed to increasing transparency and accountability through making information systematically available online…we need to encourage more people to go online and hence be able to access public information and services.”

So far so good – so long as we have digital equity. The Labour government made an explicit link between social and digital exclusion and while it didn’t go far enough, it was a promising start. Race Online 2012 has a new manifesto.  and it increasingly clear there is a new agenda.  Online, the manifesto is a visual horror. The 67 page 5.56 MB PDF offers no respite. This is a prime example of style over substance. The Manifesto for achieving for 100% digital inclusion demonstrates how to be digitally exclusive right from the start.

Image from Race Online 2012 manifesto

Putting the dreadful design to one side, what is Race Online about? The message is clear. The government is replacing people run services with online services. If you can’t access them then tough. The reasons for not going online are lack of motivation, access and skills. The government is going to sort out the access, then its up to you to get motivated and virtually re-educated. Its for your own good. The benefits of being online are obviously about economics, education, employability and improved efficiency of public welfare so how can you not see the benefits?

The Manifesto is glossy, in your face and totally inadequate. It recognises 48% of disabled people are not online but on its own that figure means nothing. Words like assistive technology, accessible design and inclusive practice are absent (in both text and the sub-text of the design). There’s no recognition of the issues of the cost of assistive software or even how with all the prerequisites in place, if digital data is not designed with the needs of assistive technology in mind then access will continue to be denied. Focus is on the transformative power of the Internet to create a new networked nation with no indication of how vulnerable citizens, already disempowered by inadequate access to welfare and barriers to social participation, are going to be supported.

The move towards virtual citizenship is alarming. Divisions between those with digital competence and those without are already creating new structures of power and dependency. The computer both connects us and isolates us. It supports a digital economy where nothing is real but we all pretend that it is. In the future, anarchy won’t be virtual it will be human. Science fiction won’t be about machines, but about people. The Internet can offer unparalleled access to information and opportunities to participate in the active construction of knowledge, but it can’t substitute for care and welfare. The greatest problem is that those driving the agenda don’t care about the impossibility of digital equity while those best placed to highlight the issues are being denied a virtual voice.