One of the major themes at the recent ‘Smart Essex’ event we hosted at BT Tower was the need to move all local government services online. While I agree that the move towards digital and the increasing availability of public services online is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, I feel care must be taken to ensure vulnerable citizens are not left behind.
Those who need to – for example the elderly or those with disabilities – should still be able access public services in person or by phone, until such time as they’re ready and/or able to embrace the new, preferred channels. An important consideration here is that usually, people use local government (council) services out of real need, rather than choice, and sometimes those services are only needed in times of hardship.
Furthermore, many services are things a person may only do once in a lifetime. As a result, these people need the experience to be as painless as possible.
That said, it makes sense to encourage as wide a take-up of digital services as possible, with help and support provided to ease the transition.
Organisations like BT play a key role here, in supporting the government’s strategy for digital inclusion (which we outlined in our charter in 2014) and helping Government reach its targets for reducing the number of citizens without access to the internet where possible. Innovation will be crucial in helping those with limited IT skills to develop them.
This point was emphasised by Essex County Council Cabinet Member for Digital Innovation, Councillor Stephen Canning, speaking at the Smart Essex event. He said: 'We firmly believe that in order to offer the very best digital services to residents and businesses in Essex, we must have an open discussion with leading technology companies and thought leaders.'
Judging by the answers given by those attending the event to a poll conducted there, digital is certainly high on most agendas. 61% strongly agreed that public services can successfully embrace digital to redesign the way they meet the needs of businesses and residents, while almost three quarters of the attendees (71%) agreed that the biggest difference that digital can make to council services is to help people live independently.
It is this move towards helping citizens live independently, balanced with the need to modernise and decentralise services that should be at the heart of the new approach – and this was highlighted in the panel discussion that concluded the day.
The panellists gave some great examples of how this can work in practice. For instance, one cited ORCA working with young people to educate them on new technologies, the idea being that they will share this knowledge with the older generations in their families.
Another panellist argued that digital services, rather than being imposed on citizens, should be designed in a way that instead draws them in. So buses with digital information and services, for example, are something that everyone can quickly see and understand the benefits of, paving the way for the introduction of changes in other areas.
When it comes to digital, the benefits are clear to see. For it to be successful, however, local authorities must understand that it’s not a case of ‘one size fits all’. Different people, with varying needs and access to digital as well as skills, must be taken into account in decisions around the types of services to move online, and in what timeframe, so no one is left behind.
Phil Brunkard is Chief Information Officer, BT Local Government and Health