Digital By Default

This week I spent a day and a half at the National Digital Conference (twitter hashtag #ND13).

It was interesting talking with civil servants, members of the third sector and businesses about their interests and efforts to growing digital engagement with the wider public.

This is part of a strategy called Digital by Default being led by the Government Digital Service (GDS). They put forward some compelling facts and figures on the benefits to individuals and society in general for their approach. They are responsible for the new UK government web site that recently won the Design of the Year Award.

Here are the GDS core principals:

A list of the ten Gov.uk design principles see text below.

1 Start with needs*
2 Do less
3 Design with data
4 Do the hard work to make it simple
5 Iterate. Then iterate again.
6 Build for inclusion
7 Understand context
8 Build digital services, not websites
9 Be consistent, not uniform
10 Make things open: it makes things better

The idea is to make services available primarily via the Internet. The web is the first point of call and the premise is that it will bring benefits for the user

We had some really interesting speakers on a range of topics from Martha Lane Fox, Lord Young, Phillip Blond and Emma Mulqueeny.

The First Major Topic Was Assisted Digital

This is what GDS say about Assisted Digital.

“The Assisted Digital team at GDS is working with departments to develop assisted digital support for digital services. This will give the 18% of UK adults who are offline access to digital by default services”

Read the Cabinet Office Assisted Digital Strategy

Assited Digital is NOT about accessibility the GDS believe that they have that covered in their strategy when they say “build for inclusion”.

And lets remember that digital accessibility only works if the users have the Assistive Technologies to interact with and the knowledge if how to use them.

Some of this Assisted Access of this will mean Digital By Proxy as the “Default” services are accessed on behalf of citizens who cannot access them unaided.

Another core strategy is to teach digital skills to those that currently don’t have them. A large contingent of this group is made up of people with disabilities and the older population. Many of these people are effectively socially excluded. The idea is that they get help right now but they will be encouraged to become more and more digitally independent.

The thing that struck me was that whilst there was a lot of talk about the huge benefits of getting people online, how much money people will save, how it empowers consumers and makes access to government services and information easier and more streamlined but little thought on the other effects it might have.

To me it seems like we are missing a few pieces of the jigsaw:

We don’t routinely provide Assistive Technology to all citizens that need it.
Grant provision for AT whilst excellent in Higher Education and available in the workplace is missing for the wider population on disability benefits.

The Access to Work scheme is a net contributor to the treasury. Other Government schemes such as Motability have given many people much greater independence, so why not have a targeted scheme for access technologies along similar lines.
Without the AT and the skills to use it there’s a lot of wasted effort making stuff accessible.

Furthermore many of those that currently use face to face analogue services now value the human interaction – the visit to the Post Office or Council office might be the only human contact they have. Phillip Blond made an interesting point – isolation and loneliness has a more immediate detrimental effect than smoking.

I applaud much of what the government digital strategy is attempting but I will leave you with these questions:

If all we go digital does it not bring it’s own perils?

Is it not like squeezing a balloon – with actions (the stated benefits) in one direction causing reactions (challenges) in another direction?

Footnote

I’m a naturalised digital citizen – I’m connected all of my waking hours and my digital presence is awake even when I am not. I have many connections and virtual interactions. I can work from anywhere and yet I chose to brave the rush hour crush. Why do I do this?

There is something valuable about proximity and the spontaneity of old fashioned analogue contact. If all our transactions go digital the. We need to find another and better way of engaging with the socially excluded.

Hands squeeze a balloon and it bulges outwards.

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