Elizabeth OHara
 
I work in the policy team at Shelter. My work mainly focuses on issues which immediately affect the clients who come through our doors – such as homelessness policy; or the funding for the advice services our clients need. My background is in the not for profit advice sector and law centre movement where I spent many years providing housing advice to those with housing problems.

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By Elizabeth OHara

Going digital by default

Civil servants gathered last week at Sprint 13 to discuss the digital transformation of Government. They have 400 days to deliver a radical change, including implementation of the Government Digital Strategy. The aim is to create ‘digital services so good that people prefer to use them’.

We welcomed the publication of the Strategy last November, in particular the way in which it committed to developing both excellent digital services and ‘assisted digital’ provision for those who are offline.

At Shelter we are very proud of our high quality and well-used digital service. Almost half a million people visited our Get Advice pages in November and December 2012 alone; this is a testament to the role digital services can play.

But we also know that it is our face to face and our telephone services that tend to reach the most vulnerable clients and help those with the most complex problems. This is why it’s so important that assisted digital really does deliver what’s been promised to those on the other side of the digital divide.

In December, GDS published its Assisted Digital Approach, which starts to put some flesh on the bones of what these services might look like. It’s still quite top line, but there is an important commitment that assisted digital services will be based on the needs of service users, not those of Government departments.

Good assisted digital support will provide another way into a digital service for people who need it. Users may deal with the service face to face, on the telephone or in another way, but their information will be fed into the digital service by the person or technology they are interacting with, so that users won’t necessarily have to interact with the digital interface themselves.

So far, so good.

But the departmental need to cut costs is also driving the Approach. The aim is to reduce the costs of transactional services from £4bn to £1.3bn each year, by encouraging as many people as possible to use the digital services independently and developing targeted assisted digital provisions for those who really need it.

The savings will only be realised if existing alternative channels close. GDS says this can happen as people move over to digital and the demand for such alternatives reduces. The questions are: who will be allowed to use alternative channels and who won’t? And what if people don’t move over quite so quickly? Will the users need for alternative channels trump the need to make financial savings?

The new raft of departmental digital strategies give us some insight into departmental thinking on assisted digital. The DWP digital strategy is of particular interest, as Universal Credit is to be one of DWP’s exemplar digital by default services.

DWP anticipate that where people do become stuck during the process of making an online claim, they should as far as possible seek online help and support, such as FAQs or other online solutions – for example, co-browsing, where a DWP adviser is able to see the same screens as the user and guide them through the process. It isn’t clear how those unable to interact with the technology at all will be catered for.

Both GDS and DWP are optimistic about the number of users who will go digital without assisted digital support. GDS say a typical service with less digitally capable users is expected to have a 50% digital take up once it becomes digital by default.

DWP go further, saying they are building Universal Credit to be the first truly digital welfare service in which users:

‘will be able to make a claim, check details of payments, notify changes of circumstance and search for a job through a single account, making digital the primary channel for most working-age people to interact with the Department: we expect that at least 80 per cent of claimants will choose do so by 2017…’

This is a hugely ambitious target. At Shelter we are not convinced that half of our current face-to-face service users could fully transfer to our digital services – let alone 80%, even with help.

While we are hugely positive about harnessing technology to make services more accessible, we get concerned when improving digital services gets too tied up with a money-saving agenda – particularly if existing face to face and telephone services are closed before it is clear that service users really have transferred successfully to digital. 

We’re sticking to the axiom of putting user needs first in designing services, be they face to face, telephone or digital – or a combination of all three.