Digital inclusion has always been a high priority for the public sector when designing citizen-facing digital services. But it has also always been a challenge, because those least digitally equipped are often the same group who are more dependent on public services.
Prior to the pandemic, there was significant resistance to a ‘digital first’ policy in parts of the public sector, for fear of disenfranchising people or de-personalising services. However, the pandemic proved many of those fears to be misplaced, and the most vulnerable in society have embraced digital services when they are designed around their needs – to work from home, to buy things online and keep in touch with news, family, and friends.
Whilst there has been, as a result, significant progress in addressing digital inclusion in the past two years, the pandemic has also created a new generation of those excluded. Essential reasons for exclusion include in 2023:
- Complex digital services which depend on the latest technology or smart phone
- Poorly designed user interfaces and channel inconsistencies
- Failure to join up common digital components around ‘service journeys’
- Removal of help and face-to-face support, especially when digital services fail
- Systems that are not transparent in how data is captured, shared, and managed
- Overly complicated automated telephone systems, which confuse
- Services designed only for common transactions to reduce costs
- No ‘safety net’ or triggers when things don’t ‘follow the script’.
Additionally, there is a range of other digital inclusion issues to consider for public services in 2023, especially for some of the more complex digital services:
- Rural infrastructure weaknesses which limit home access, while smart cities focus on 5G+
- Cyber and other digital risks affecting individuals and whole communities and create fear
- Democracy protection and the risks of social media and ‘fake news’
- Inequality of life opportunities and unintentional bias in a ‘digital first’ model.
Priorities for digital leaders in 2023 will be:
- Connectivity, for all to digital services where basic mobile or broadband falls short
- Designing systems for easy access, including a renewed focus on digital identity
- Integrating digital and other service channels, including essential face-to-face support
- Avoiding unintentional bias in a ‘digital first’ model, including in democratic processes
- Joining up digital services around citizen’s needs so that they are easier to use
- Protecting citizens in the way digital services and personal data are managed
- Re-purposing complex digital systems for easy smartphone use.
Digital service design can help to address all of these problems and provide a more inclusive and equal society, but only if excluded and vulnerable groups are considered at the outset of digital change programmes. Access is key – particularly equal access to good broadband and internet service for all, regardless of location and circumstances.
Fibre broadband in Sweden – access for all
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More than 75% of Swedish households and businesses now have fibre and for more than half those, the fibre comes from a municipal network. With a unique financial model, innovative collaboration between suppliers, supported by the government and industry, 44% of Swedish households now subscribe to fibre broadband, and 75% of all broadband users get 100 Mbps download speeds or higher. With easy, low-cost access for all, irrespective of location, the municipal networks are nonetheless financially self-sustaining or even profitable. Now even the smallest, hardest to reach remote rural communities are being targeted:
“The smallest municipalities are too small to operate networks at scale, and the Swedish Local Fibre Alliance is lobbying to allow them to join forces and build combined networks.”
– Mikael Ek, Chief Executive, Swedish Local Fibre Alliance
Norfolk and Suffolk Innovation Network – extending rural reach
In the UK, the Norfolk and Suffolk Innovation Network is developing a ‘Long Range Wide Area Network’ (LoRaWAN), a low power, wide area networking protocol designed for wireless connection of battery operated ‘things’ (or IoT devices) to the internet in regional, national, or global networks. Its use is vast and growing, covering agriculture, travel, health and safety, education, and environmental monitoring.’ The IoT/LoRaWAN sensors provide the ability to increase in the spatial and human awareness across the counties by connecting sensors, gathering data, and making new insightful and informed decision based on the information. These are supporting more people across the rural county; combined with the full fibre, public Wi-Fi, 5G and better broadband for Norfolk and Suffolk to give people access to critical services and opportunities.
Stockport – reducing digital poverty
Collaborating to tackle digital poverty in social housing (digitalstockport.info)
Stockport Council is collaborating to reduce digital poverty in the region. Projects include connectivity via the national databank and installing affordable Wi-Fi in blocks, a device loan and subsidy scheme and free skills training supported by local volunteers.
“The pilot is uncovering some fantastic, progressive, and innovative ways of looking at connectivity in Greater Manchester, and it is clear no one organisation alone could have achieved the outcomes of this project.”
– Tanya King, Head of Customer Engagement and Inclusion, Stockport Homes Group, England
Scottish Government – extending video consultations
Near me (tec.scot)
The Scottish Government has introduced a ‘Near Me’ video consultation service, providing private video consultations, in secure confidential digital hubs across the country. This will be an extension of the 40,000 care and support consultations every month from private homes.
“Face to face appointments will always be there for people who need them, but Near Me has many benefits to patients, including saving time and money. It is valuable in giving them options on accessing healthcare in a way that is easy and comfortable for them. It allows multiple family members to join consultations and saves patients having to take time off work or organise childcare”.
– Humza Yousaf, Scottish Health Secretary
Wales – Digital Inclusion Charter
Digital Inclusion Charter (digitalcommunities.gov.wales)
The Charter exists to support and champion organisations working in the public, private or third sector in Wales who are willing to promote basic digital skills and help people get online. The Charter includes six pledges and is a way for organisations to show their commitment to helping digitally excluded people enjoy the benefits of being online – particularly older people, people with disabilities, unemployed people, social housing tenants, families in poverty and ethnic minority communities.
When you sign the Digital Inclusion Charter, we are asking you to commit to the six key pledges – allowing us to work together in the spirit of co-operation to promote digital inclusion in Wales. We will support you in developing and delivering those commitments through the Digital Inclusion Charter Accreditation process.