What is important when thinking about digital government services?

Author(s): Josh Abel; Rachel Hutchings; Karl Williams

December 7, 2021

Digital government services must be made truly accessible to reduce inequalities

By Josh Abel (Fabian Society)

The pandemic has brought the digital divide to the forefront of public policy debate. During lockdown, far too many children were unable to learn from home because they could not access the internet and millions of households faced social isolation because they were unable to go online.

It is deeply concerning how much more likely a person is to be digitally excluded if they also experience other forms of social disadvantage. Disability is a case in point. At the start of 2020, 3.4 per cent of non-disabled people had never used the internet. The proportion of disabled people who had never used the internet was more than four times larger at 14.9 per cent.

The barriers to inclusion for disabled people are wide-ranging and complex. But one key issue is this: there is no point in being online if an individual cannot access the services and websites they need.

Digital government services must take a lead. Although public sector bodies’ websites and apps are legally required to conform to an international accessibility standard, we know that there is substantial variation in the extent to which they are truly accessible. The Government Digital Service, for example, has recognised that many of the forms on GOV.UK are inaccessible.

Several actions are needed to start to set things right. First, the government must publish a digital inclusion strategy that fleshes out a genuinely cross-departmental plan to reduce inequalities. Second, as part of that strategy, government should launch a review of the accessibility of public digital services and websites. And third, government needs to recognise that it will never be the case that every individual who needs to access services will be online – and take steps to ensure the same services are available for those who remain offline.

Focus on building public trust and confidence in the use of digital services and prioritise digital inclusion

By Rachel Hutchings (The Nuffield Trust)

Covid-19 has led to an increase in the use of digital services across many areas of public life, including health care. But it has also highlighted risks around an increasing digital divide. When thinking about digital in government services, public trust and digital inclusion must be prioritised.

The Nuffield Trust’s Fit for the Future report explored how five European countries have made progress on using digital in health care. Countries that have made progress (such as Estonia and Denmark) have benefited from a comprehensive approach to using digital in public services. Indeed, citizens expect services to be available in this way. This means designing digital services in partnership with citizens themselves and prioritising customer experience. An infrastructure enabling data to be linked across different sectors (supported by things such as a unique personal identifier) is vital too.

Building in processes around who and why data can be accessed is essential. Key to this is fostering a culture of trust and confidence in the use of data where processes are accepted by citizens. In health care, data-sharing initiatives within the NHS have consistently highlighted the need for public engagement and communication to build trust and confidence. A comprehensive focus on digital inclusion is also essential for making sure people are able to benefit from digital services. This is not just an issue in health care – there must be a societal focus on digital inclusion through providing access to the internet and skills.

Other countries have shown that obstacles to the efficient digitisation of government services are not insurmountable

By Karl Williams (Centre for Policy Studies)

Digital government can be said to have three elements: the portals and user experience (e.g. medics using telemedicine), the behind-the-scenes-wiring through which citizens access state services (e.g. electronic patient records or electronic prescriptions); and finally the use of aggregate data by policymakers to make better decisions around these services.

In all respects, digital has the potential to boost public sector productivity growth, delivering greater value for money for taxpayers while easing pressures on state coffers. These are vital priorities, given the fiscal legacy of Covid – rampant borrowing and excessive taxation – not to mention backlogs in many public services.

Many people are understandably cautious about the possibilities here, given the track record of centralised government IT projects in Britain. Yet countries such as Greece and Estonia have shown obstacles to the efficient digitisation of government services are not insurmountable.

In building up state digital development capacity, neither country was afraid of public-private partnerships or shopping around for off-the-peg solutions from the private sector. This is most obviously the case in data storage, but also to varying degrees in data collection, organisation, analysis and output.

Two key elements to digital government are modularity and interoperability. Databases in particular need to click together, like Lego bricks, so they can be put together in different ways and scaled rapidly. On top of this, platform neutrality is necessary for competitive tendering, which is in turn vital to keeping a lid on costs. If lower costs can be combined with more joined-up digital government, much needed public sector productivity growth should follow.