How can we ensure the move to digital services doesn’t leave people behind?

Government is going digital, and spawning a host of new terminology along the way, from ‘e-government’ to ‘digital inclusion’.

I’m sure that by now you’ll have heard the digital buzz terms ‘assisted digital’ and ‘digital skills’, and probably know what they mean.

But just in case you’re relatively new to the digital agenda, as I am, ‘assisted digital’ is the government’s way of talking about the support some people will need to access public services online – like filling in an online form on someone’s behalf. And ‘digital skills’ is about making sure people have the skills to go online themselves, and so that they can use online services.

It’s taken me longer than I thought to understand the common driver across the two agendas.

These two terms lay at the heart of policy discussions about how to ensure the move to digital services doesn’t leave people behind. Inevitably, the digitally excluded are likely to be the most vulnerable in society, including the elderly, disabled and those from low socio- economic groups.

For housing advice services, digital inclusion means ensuring people aren’t denied the help they need to resolve their housing problems simply because they cannot access online services. Up to now attempts to tackle digital exclusion have focused on either assisted digital services, or on increasing digital skills – but not normally on both.

Perhaps we’re missing a trick here. Why couldn’t advice services provide direct, assisted digital support to resolve clients’ immediate needs, while also teaching them digital skills as part of that process?

So advisors offering hands-on support to claim Universal Credit online, for example, could also teach clients the basics about accessing the internet and filling in online forms.

We need a policy of supporting people in a way which enables access to services and helps to move clients towards independent access. In short, cracking the issue of exclusion from both ends at once.

But the reality is this approach has big implications – not least in terms of cost and staff development.

Running integrated digital services this way would be more resource intensive, taking longer to deliver and requiring doubly skilled advisors who can provide support and teach. It would need upfront funding, while the results might not be seen immediately – and might be felt outside the issue that the original service targets. So an integrated digital housing advice service might give someone skills that could help them in getting employment – which is good news, but presents challenges to service funding regimes based on measureable outcomes.

This way of doing things would be a shift towards more choice and autonomy for clients. Previous migration to online services, such as the introduction of choice based lettings online, enabled digital independence to become a gateway for wider client independence, allowing people to choose what accommodation to bid for.

Protections would need to be put in place to prevent digital independence impacting negatively on the most vulnerable clients. And any shift towards such integrated digital services would have to leave room for support services that focus on clients who fall into crisis and those who will never be wholly independent. Focusing on what digital inclusion means for these clients is worthy of another discussion.

But let’s see if we can frame the discussion around assisted digital support as a means to digital independence.