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Digital by Default – When the UK’s Government Online Services Become the Norm

by Juniper Employee on ‎08-17-2011 10:06 AM

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 (4 August 2011)


2 HMRC, Online Filing Figures for Self Assessment 2009/10 (2010) (4 August 2011)


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 (4 August 2011).


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

by PHilip Virgo (anon) on ‎08-19-2011 11:51 AM


A minority of taxpayers submit self assessment returns and HMRC  compelled all but the smallest of VAT registered businesses to file and pay on-ine - which gives major problems to those in rural areas wiht no broadband and no banks 


UK payments has now had to abandon the attempt to force people on line by withdrawing cheques.


Meanwhile  the sheer scale of loss of data and the availablity of sufficient information on-line to obtain supposeldy reputable electronic credentials in the names of most of those who are creditworthy raises fears of a collpase of confidence in the on-line world.


Improving access (broadband) and ease of secure use (design of around security by defaults)  will help attract more but "herding the sheep on-line to be fleeced"  (Google the phrase and you will find one of my "When IT Meets Politics Politics blogs" ) is not a good approach for thsoe who wish to be re-elected.


Ensuring on-line access to government services that is fit for purpose is a much better approach. That requires listening. And the IT industry has never been very good at that.


Perhaps one of the CTf policy studies should be on how to use of IT to consult those who we really need to consult.   



  It would be interesting to know how many self-assessment returns were done by accountants 

by Juniper Employee on ‎08-22-2011 12:38 AM

Thanks for your comments Philip. I think they demonstrate the complexity surrounding any decision to move to an entirely online service delivery for government.


That said, "digital by default" is now stated policy and the debate needs to be broadened beyond government circles so the "listening" aspect you refer to lets people feel they have a genuine say in its implementation. You are right to point out that the UK does not yet have a suitable infrastructure in place (either in terms of broadband reach or in terms of support for those less confident using digital services) so, I guess, the question is academic at this moment in time.


Even if all the technical conditions can be resolved there is likely to be a natural resistance and, as you point out, the electoral cycle will become a factor.





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