It seems we’d rather pay our taxes than indulge in a spot of retail therapy these days. At least that’s what you could conclude from the latest government figures on UK internet usage. Whilst 62% of adults shopped online1 a staggering 74% of self assessment tax returns were completed in the virtual environment2. It would appear the government is setting the pace in the digital revolution.
This is good news for government as citizens engaging online is a major factor in many departments’ efficiency and cost saving plans. It’s also good news for increasingly mobile citizens who will have access to more personalised government services at a time convenient to them. But this leaves the government with an intriguing problem; when should it declare government services to be digital by default? In other words, the only way to access these services is online. In a single stroke, the costly overhead of offering alternative paper transactions is eliminated. Only then will the true efficiencies that ICT can deliver be realised.
This approach is a clearly stated goal in the Cabinet Office’s ICT Strategy6. But, as we have seen with the proposed withdrawal of cheque books – an attempt to forcibly do away with paper based banking - it is likely to polarise opinion. On the one hand, Companies House rightly cherishes the fact that over 91% of all new company registrations happen digitally3, on the other hand the Department for Work and Pensions will find it challenging to improve on the 27% of claimants who currently register online for Job Seekers Allowance4. Demographics and personal circumstance influences online behaviour and will similarly influence the governments timing to go digital by default.
Studies by the Office for National Statistics5 show that 82% of adults (nearly 41 million people) have used the internet and 60% do so on a daily basis. It’s not surprising when looking a little deeper, to see that the proportion of users decreases with age; for instance, less than 1% of 16-24 year olds have no experience of the internet whilst this figure rises to 76% for the over 75's. One argument could be to just wait; a generation from now and nature will take care of the issue. But neither the government nor UK citizens have the luxury of time. The economy demands action now and this suggests, at some point, an element of compulsion will be needed if we are all to benefit from digital government services.
This opens a wider debate concerning personal choice but this is balanced by the need for each citizen to act responsibly for the collective good of our national economy. The ICT Strategy6 recognises this when it says “For those for whom digital channels are less accessible (for example, some older or disadvantaged people) the Government will enable a network of ‘assisted digital’ service providers, such as Post Offices, UK online centres and other local service providers.” Therefore, help and support will be available to the 17.5% of adults who have yet to experience the internet. Of course, trust and security are big showstoppers in this – but they are huge topics in their own right, which I plan to address in a dedicated blog very soon.
It seems digital by default government services is really a matter of when, not if, and not how. Should there be an element of compulsion to hasten the process? Does this approach empower citizens or undermine personal choice? What moral obligations does the IT industry have towards the eight million people who have never used the internet? Should the economic benefits outweigh the concerns of individual citizens? As so often happens these days, it’s social, political and cultural factors, rather than the purely technological, that will drive the pace of change.
1 Office for National Statistics (2010) National Statistics Online: Society http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=8 (4 August 2011)
2 HMRC, Online Filing Figures for Self Assessment 2009/10 (2010)
3 Companies House Annual Report and Accounts 2010/11 (Crown Copyright 2011), (2011)
4 Office for National Statistics (2011), Statistical Bulletin; Labour Market statistics July 2011
4 DWP Advisers and Intermediaries, DWP website
5 Office for National Statistics (2011) Internet Access Quarterly Update, Edition 2011 Q1, Williams, M (ed.)
6 Government ICT Strategy (Crown Copyright) (March 2011), The Cabinet Office