If we wish modern democracy to flourish, it is imperative we respond

Written by Helen Milner, Chief Executive of Good Things Foundation

Today the Government published the long awaited digital strategy, as a Government Transformation Strategy.

There’s some good stuff in here about breaking down silos and making sure Government services are integrated, and a brave introduction from Ben Gummer admitting that Government isn’t responsive:

“To govern is to serve. Our purpose is to maintain the security, safety and prosperity of the nation and to deliver what we have promised the people who elect us.

“Yet it is too often the case that citizens feel that they live at the convenience of the state: that the government acts not as servant but as master. The result is a perception that the country works for the people who govern, not those whom the government is tasked to serve. Whether it is a lack of belief in the capacity of government to deliver the pledges it makes at election time, or the frustrations thrown in the way of people every day – from filling in a form to trying to talk to someone on the phone – government seems less and less capable of doing what people want.

“The result of that disenchantment is plain to see. Here in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the democratic world, people are expressing their wish for a more responsive state at the ballot box. It is a call that demands a reply; indeed, if we wish modern democracy to flourish, it is imperative we respond.

“This is no easy task. Government is more complex and wide-reaching than ever before. There is no company on earth – even the largest of multinationals – which comes close to having to co-ordinate the array of essential services and functions for millions of people that a modern government provides. Equally our duty is to serve everyone regardless of ability, age, gender, opinion or the places in which they choose to live. For these reasons and because bureaucracies are by their natures monopoly providers, government has been slow to use the transformative potential of digital technology to change the way it does business.”

While the Strategy presents a vision of a more joined-up Government taking forward transformation, it is disappointing that there appears to be a lack of joined-up leadership when it comes to tackling digital skills and digital inclusion. The Government Digital Service currently has responsibility for Assisted Digital, whilst the Department for Culture, Media and Skills has a relatively new responsibility for digital inclusion. Maybe these two silos could work closer together. The bold vision that has been set out for change ‘at pace and scale‘ risks being derailed unless there is action to address the needs of the 12.6 million without digital skills at a similar pace and scale. We know that the DCMS-led Digital Economy Bill is set to put an entitlement in place for free basic digital skills training for the people who need them. That’s great, but it’s not mentioned in this Strategy nor is there a plan for implementing it.

The rollout of Universal Credit is a good example of where this joined-up policy and leadership around digital inclusion and skills has become urgent. Last year, our Online Centres Network supported 65,000 jobseekers to gain digital skills. This support is provided because citizens need it. Some of the digital skills projects we run are funded by Government, but not by DWP. The Transformation Strategy states that the rollout of Universal Credit depends on “much stronger local partnerships to support vulnerable claimants, who are probably using other public services at the same time“. This is true, but there must not be an expectation that community organisations can support benefit claimants without a joined up plan to making sure this happens.

The small section on digital inclusion in the Government Transformation Strategy reads:

“Developments in the private sector may highlight opportunities for government, but some of these do not translate directly into public service provision. For example, private sector companies can choose to target certain customers and exclude others. Public service providers, on the whole, cannot.

“Many sectors have been disrupted by new companies making the best use of digital technology, but it is not a given that similar benefits will be realised by government automatically. It is not possible to disintermediate critical services like benefits and courts, where people depend on public services and have no choice about whether to use them. Services must work for the whole of society – not just the 77% of people who have basic digital skills, but for the 12.6 million adults who don’t. This is particularly important as financial exclusion and digital exclusion often go hand in hand. People who are the least online are often heavier users of public services, highlighting the need to design services to include them. Nearly one in four people in the UK will be over 65 by 2040.

“A significant proportion of the adult population may never attain the digital skills to use online services without support, because of disabilities or lack of basic literacy skills.”

I’m on record previously, arguing against that last point. At Good Things we’re helping people who are over 90 years of age learn to use the internet independently and many people who have disabilities use the internet confidently. There’s no numbers here of course, so it all really depends what ‘a signification proportion‘ means to Government – if that means 2% or 3% of the adult population then we’re not arguing. If that means 10% then we are.

In Ben Gummer’s introduction he says:

“The imperative is to change, therefore – and to do so at pace and at scale. This is the meaning of transformation. It is in essence a change of working, of culture and of disposition – changes that are made possible by digital technology. That technology is not change itself; it enables the change that is so transformative.”

Changing lives at scale and using technology to enable transformative change on people’s lives is what we’re driven by at Good Things Foundation as many of our 2 million people we’ve supported in the past six years told us last week:  “It’s not about computers, it’s about people … 2 million people”.

We hope that there will be a plan of action for how the Government will support the 12.6 million people without digital skills, rather than an acceptance that those who aren’t online now will never be. Its Transformation Strategy – and modern democracy – depends on it.

Join the conversation on twitter with #GTS17

This blog was first posted on HelenMilner.com here.

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