20 years of “online government” 101. Part 4: approaches to social inclusion

This is part 4 in my occasional blog summarising the past 20 years or so of UK efforts to move government online. The previous parts provided summaries on progress towards a single online presencea high-level summary of the overall architectural thinking and a look at approaches to identity.

In this one, I’ll take a similar (and equally arbitrary) whistle-stop tour of some of the main developments around the topic of social inclusion/exclusion related to the use of information technology. It sketches in a few more details behind my CIO article ‘Truly digital social inclusion‘ — and like my other blogs, makes no pretence at being comprehensive.

Much of this debate orbits around self-evident distinctions made between the public and private sectors: in particular, that the private sector can decide on its target audience and be selective (if it wishes) about with whom it chooses to interact. It may for example choose to target only a specific segment of a market (the rich, the young, the gullible, etc.). The public sector however provides universal services, potentially available to us all. With that exclusive, monopoly-provider status comes enormous responsibility — given that it’s not possible for citizens to obtain most public services elsewhere.

e-govt-POSTThis was recognised back in 1998, in a review of government use of IT by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology:

“… government and business have different motives and constituents, so it would be naive to expect the applications of ICT in business to be mirrored exactly in government. There are also a number of areas of concern over the potential wider use of ICT in government, including issues such as privacy, vulnerability of a public electronic infrastructure to crime, acts of war and terrorism, potential abuses of civil rights, and social cohesion versus social exclusion. How to gain the benefits of ICT in the public sector while avoiding the pitfalls is an important policy question for Departments, Government as a whole and Parliament.”

Ever since the first efforts to use technology to put government services online in the 1990s, there’s been a political focus on the concept of social exclusion caused by what has been termed a ‘digital divide’: public services need to be available to all, and yet with the increasing adoption of technology in all aspects of our daily lives, the concern is that some less tech-savvy citizens are becoming, or will become, disadvantaged.

Government Direct

The 1996 Government Direct green paper made clear that it was aware of and intended to tackle this issue:

“All of the services will be accessible and easy to use. They will be available via terminals, either in the home or in convenient public places such as libraries, post offices and shopping centres. And they will be available alongside a full range of other services, including Citizen’s Charter information, thus providing an electronic “one-stop-shop” for Government. They will provide interactive guidance as users work through questionnaires and forms, making them simpler and quicker to use than paper-based forms. The services could also be available over an extended working day and at weekends, and for 24 hours a day, seven days a week where appropriate. Responses will be as near to immediate as practicable, and where an immediate response is not available, it will be possible to obtain electronic reports of progress. The services will be linked so that it will not normally be necessary to tell government the same information (for example, about a change of address) more than once.”

Touchscreen kiosks in public places were seen as one of the main ways in which access to online services would be made universal, even to those without access to technology in their homes or workplaces. The plan was that they would be found in public places, from libraries to Post Offices to Job Centres to banks and supermarkets. In hindsight, many of these earlier government documents seriously underestimated the speed and spread of the internet, and in particular the growth of mobile devices as a means of access in place of earlier assumptions about PCs and fixed line connectivity.

The review of government use of IT by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology in 1998 recognised the

“important role for Government in stewarding the development of an inclusive information society. A central recommendation is that local community ‘resource centres’ should be established, providing a publicly accessible means of conducting business electronically. Clearly, Government would be an important provider of information and services through such an infrastructure — and might be by far the most significant one in the case of disadvantaged communities.

Government’s role [is] as both potential contributor to and mitigator of this problem. Here, the two main factors are access … and behaviour … Thus, while Government has several options for providing a range of methods of access to reach every sector of society, these would be wasted if people don’t actually use them and exclude themselves from society. An interesting dimension to the issue of information ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is the potential scenario that some have suggested of government itself being an information ‘have not’ and thus incapable of acting to safeguard the interests of the wider population against the minority of ‘haves’”

Methods of access were foreseen as spanning:

POST table

One of the most comprehensive reviews of online users’ needs and social inclusion was the ‘View from the Queue’ study and report of 1998, which appears to be one of the few government papers to have conducted extensive citizen and business research in order to inform its conclusions.

View from the Queue

Importanty, the ‘View from the Queue’ recognises a simple reality that often seems to have been overlooked:

“Services can, of course, deploy technology in other ways that do not impact on the customer at the point of interface.”

However, at times there seems to have been a less valid view of technology, one of trying to miscast its role solely as one of ‘screen-based’ delivery of services, rather than about its more important role in re-engineering the processes, systems, structures, organisations and role of government. Such sidelining of technology into a superficial presentational role does little to help inform the underlying topic of social inclusion and how better to design public services to meet their universal requirements. The ‘View from the Queue’ however set out a more inclusive and comprehensive range of improvements that could impact on social inclusion, including:

    • simplifying procedures and documentation
    • reducing time taken queuing or waiting
    • minimising referrals between officials
    • eliminating interactions which fail to yield outcomes
    • extending contact opportunities beyond office hours
    • improving relationships with the public

It also foresaw the potential for electronic government services to improve four key areas:

    • speed of carrying out transactions
    • convenience/access
    • flexibility in options and hours of service
    • empowerment (bring services closer to the public and allowing them to choose how/when to carry out transactions).

It also sought to allay concerns about technology and how it will be used by government … by:

    • ensuring ‘confidentiality’ or privacy in interacting with government
    • providing safeguards against fraud or computer hacking
    • providing guarantees about government’s use of information
    • providing assistance and support to users

One of the many surveys it conducted examined how likely people were to use online government services:

View from the Queue survey

16 years later, the recent GDS-published survey provides an interesting comparison:

GDS survey

Different elements of the ‘View from the Queue’ research indicated that widespread public confidence in new services would only be achieved by:

  • improving existing services or offering benefits to users that they do not get at present. Both the qualitative research and interviews with large businesses point out that there is little point in merely replacing existing services/transactions with a new electronic version, described by one qualitative respondent as potentially ‘moving the queue from the counter to a kiosk’
  • allaying concerns about technology and how it will be used by government.

Its qualitative research identified a number of improvements desired in regard to existing services:

  • the simplification of procedures and documentation (e.g. forms), where this is possible
  • reducing the time taken queuing or waiting and the amount of referral between different officials or offices and trying to eliminate interactions which do not lead to an outcome
  • greater flexibility of means of making contact and greater opportunities for contacting government outside of ‘normal’ office hours
  • improving relationships with the public; in particular there is a feeling that services are currently set up to suit the government’s needs, rather than the public’s, and this can lead to a sense of powerlessness. The Desk Research confirms that this is a widespread perception of many public services.

There’s also a whole range of qualitative feedback and comments, which include the following nuggets:

“Filling out forms was felt to be particularly complicated and time consuming”

“Contacting government departments by telephone was described as being lengthy, frustrating and sometimes costly. The respondents described being held in telephone queues, passed to several different departments and not obtaining answers to queries as being particularly frustrating.”

“In dealing with a person face-to-face it was claimed that one would have wait in a queue, often in a post office or government offices, e.g. DSS office. The DSS office in particular was described as being a particularly undesirable place to queue.”

“The lack of accountability, i.e. no one person taking responsibility for queries/applications etc.”

“Whilst the respondents claimed that it was always appealing to save money, it was not of importance towards use. The respondents felt that the most important factors towards use would be to offer something that was easier and quicker than the existing method.”

“The existing transactions with government were seen as being complicated and time consuming. In some cases, respondents described feelings of humiliation and irritation with regard to previous dealings with government.”

“Interestingly, respondents were surprised that with the amount of technology available, the application procedures were still very lengthy. These comments centred around the technology supporting government staff, ie their own computer systems, rather than the electronic government offering.

Possible solutions to such (long familiar) issues included:

“The need to provide a service, with particular reference to accountability of staff, i.e. one person dealing with a query rather than being dealt with by several people and departments.”

And direct feedback from respondents includes the following statements:

“Simplify it. Ninety per cent of forms are not user friendly. Most forms are designed for lawyers and accountants.”

“It is so unprofessional, maybe they should link up to computers, it is behind the times.”

“… electronic government services could ‘free-up’ staff time to deal with queries of a more complicated and sensitive nature.”

“I think with all this technology and they still can’t manage to do this (obtaining a passport quickly).”

For those who had a problem with their last contact with government services, the two top reasons cited were:

    • Staff were not helpful/lacked knowledge
    • Staff were slow in dealing with the transaction

Over half of benefits claimants found it difficult to fill in the forms, with nearly half saying they needed help to fill them in. Half found communicating in writing difficult and half found filling in forms difficult.

“Face-to-face or telephone contact was perceived as being easier than written communication and form filling (there are issues of literacy here that are not explored in the research). Eighty-five per cent found it easy to communicate face-to-face and 70 per cent found it easy by telephone. “

Portal Feasibility

In 1999, the Portal Feasibility Study, made some more specific recommendations:

“The Portals must support Government policies for social inclusion and therefore a wide range of channels will be needed which will collectively appeal to all sectors of the user community.

From the channel media perspective, potential ‘portal’ delivery channels were categorised as:

    • Direct electronic channels, for example internet access through a customer’s PC, interactive television or kiosk
    • Voice telephony channels where the customer contacts a call centre agent by telephone who is able to communicate with the Portal using a direct electronic channel
    • Face-to-face channels where the customer interacts directly with an agent who is able to communicate with the Portal using a direct electronic channel, for example with a Post Office counter clerk or Bank teller.”

The UKOnline initiative from around 2000 made a concerted effort to address issues of social inclusion, investing substantially in areas such as PCs in libraries and potential partnerships with Citizen Advice Bureaux to ensure there were local access points, and in UKOnline centres aimed at helping improve the general skills and capabilities of citizens. The inheritance of these initiatives survives in the network of community internet access points called the ‘UK Online Centres network’, now run by the Tinder Foundation.

e-govt strategy 2000

In 2000, ‘e-Government: a strategic framework for public services in the information age’ commented:

 “The transformation of the way government and citizens interact must be an occasion for increasing social inclusion. It will be an opportunity to address disadvantage which arises from geographical location, to improve communications and employment opportunities. The Government is committed to reducing the digital divide, through the policies developed by the Social Exclusion Unit; through IT learning centres; and in its commitment to improving IT skills and access through the National Grid for Learning, the National Learning Network, learndirect and the Library Network. There are many local programmes in support of these aims too. But spanning the digital divide means more than skills and access, and it has to be accepted that some citizens will not want or will not be able to be direct users of new technologies. That does not mean that this strategy has nothing to offer them. New technology can support better face to face and telephone transactions as well as direct interaction online. A challenge for the public sector will be how to free up staff from internal processes in order to offer more effective interactions, and how to provide front line staff with the skills, information and equipment they need to act as intermediaries in this new environment.

The bold above (my emphasis) holds true now — and provides insight into the true potential offered by digital, not merely the simplistic notion of serving up existing services onto a screen. This is precisely why we need to ensure the move to digital gets it right where previous initiatives failed: it reflects the more fundamental issues that the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology report highlighted in 1998, namely that where IT has been deployed extensively in government

“… this has tended to involve the automation of existing manual procedures based on the movement of paper, and has not reflected the major shift in management practices seen in the commercial world where IT has been used to move away from functional business units and to re-structure organisations around the processes that support the core business.”

It’s clear that social inclusion has been a concern at least since the 1990s and the first attempts to move government services online. But this narrow association with purely technological aspects has at times diluted the focus on the underlying causes of social inclusion — notably the way public services are designed, operated and delivered across multiple channels. As my recent CIO article argues, social inclusion needs to be addressed in the round — across all delivery channels — not become distorted by an isolated obsession about digital inclusion related to adding on-screen delivery as merely another channel for public services delivery.

There are also wider aspects that can be neglected in the move to truly digitally designed and operated public services. For example, the social issues that arise as government begins to manage information better. Take an example such as the potential that exists to provide real-time data to enable detailed geographic mapping of where taxes are generated and welfare disbursed. Poorly managed, certain communities or areas could be stigmatised by such developments (part of this debate started to happen when crime maps first began to be published online) — another reason issues of social inclusion/exclusion need to be considered holistically, not in fragments.

I’ll conclude this post with a paraphrased quote from my CIO piece:

Tackling social inclusion requires the realignment of the entire life-cycle of our public services around citizens’ needs … this important topic must not become sidetracked into a narrow focus on ‘screen-based’ service delivery: the opportunities offered by digital reform can enable the delivery of meaningful, socially-inclusive improvements to the design and operation of our public services – across all of the delivery channels that citizens and businesses use.

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