So, it’s out – the new Government Digital Strategy, published yesterday. It’s the fruit of many months of work at Government Digital Service (GDS), working out how to deliver the Government’s commitment to become ‘digital by default’ in its delivery of services.
This content of this strategy is highly relevant to us at Shelter. As a major provider of housing advice nationally, we deliver services across all channels: we have an excellent digital offer alongside equally excellent telephone and face to face services. We believe all are important and enable us to reach out widely to those in housing need.
The Government’s new Digital Strategy reflects much of what we think. At last it provides a definition of what digital by default means: ‘services so straightforward and convenient that all those who can use them will choose to do so whilst those who can’t are not excluded.’
That last bit is key for us at Shelter. The strategy and the accompanying Digital Efficiency Report, list the financial benefits of digitising transactional services, but importantly there is an unambiguous commitment to provide ‘assisted digital’ services as well.
Assisted digital is the term used to describe the ways of helping those unwilling or unable to go digital to access services. There are 14 key actions for Government in the strategy – Action 9 makes it clear that assisted digital will be an integral part of the move towards services being digital by default:
‘There will be a cross-governmental approach to assisted digital. This means that people who have rarely or never been online will be able to access services offline, and we will provide additional ways for them to use the digital services.’
As GDS blogged yesterday, ‘digital by default is just that – a default. It’s not ‘digital only’ or 100% digital for all users and all services.’
At Shelter we very much welcome the recognition that, while digital technologies offer huge potential to improve services, not everyone who uses Government services is online, and that not everyone will be able to use digital services independently. So it’s great that assisted digital services have been woven into the new strategy, without undermining or distracting from the desire to make better use of new technologies.
From our own experience of delivering advice we know that different clients and different problems tend towards different channels. More vulnerable clients and more urgent problems tend towards face to face advice; those able to self-help often find telephone or digital services to be more convenient.
We also know some counter-intuitive things are true: young people may be amongst the most digitally literate, but when it comes to advice seeking, they tend not to use online services. At Shelter we strive to provide the best possible digital services we can, but we know that digital alone won’t reach the most vulnerable people who need help.
Departments are due to publish their own digital strategies in December, informed by the principles published yesterday. So the commitment to assisted digital must now be worked out in the context of each department’s work.
We know that there are many debates to be had about the scope and content of assisted digital as we go forward. GDS is due to publish further thinking on assisted digital alongside these departmental strategies next month. But for now at least, assisted digital – and therefore services to those who would otherwise be excluded – is high on the agenda. We welcome that.