Digital Inclusion – Striking the balance between innovative services and physical support

I went ten pin bowling with my son the other day. Left to our own devices, I like to think it would have been a pretty one-sided affair, despite the significant practice he had put in on our games console! But conceptually easy though bowling is to grasp, several factors make physically playing the game a tricky and unappealing prospect for a 6 year old. Fortunately, help was at hand in the form of a bowling ramp and side-guards on the gutters. With the playing field levelled he could fully join in and the bowling trip was a great success.

What has any of this got to do with public sector Digital service provision? The answer is that for some users incentives and support are essential. Equivalents of the ramp and guards need to be put in place for those less able to use Digital services. Otherwise they won’t be able to participate, or will lose interest in trying.

As our lives are increasingly dominated by the internet, individuals unable to interact with and use substantially digitised services are becoming excluded from society. Just as my son needed assistance to bowl, so an inclusive approach should be baked into Digital services to enable everyone to use them. Without it, services will fail to reach those who may need them most.

The Digital Hype Cycle

A generally accepted theory about the rise of Digital is that it has made consumers and citizens more sophisticated. Quick to embrace 21st century technology, their expectations are higher. They want a personalised experience. Digital enables fluid and dynamic interactions. Since everyone has more information at their fingertips, customer desires and needs are increasingly complex. Failure to respond to this in the commercial world can lead to organisations ceasing to be relevant and competitive. Constellation Research suggests 52% of the Fortune 500 companies of the year 2000 have since gone bankrupt, been acquired or ceased to exist in large part due to digital disruption.

The attraction of Digital government is undeniable – more efficient and targeted services could be delivered at substantially lower cost. Government has an opportunity to reinvent its engagement with citizens significantly, whilst simultaneously reducing spend. But unlike the private sector, government is not always able to select its target demographic. Nor, in many cases, can citizens choose whether to interact with government. Public sector Digital services must be universally accessible. Yet there is a real and persistent Digital divide threatening to prevent this. How then should services cater for those that can’t (or worse won’t) engage?

If we build it, will they come?

Digital services, according to the Government Digital Strategy, should be so good that people will want to use them. But we are not a universally digitally-savvy nation.

Simply assuming that people can and will engage – “build it and they will come” – is unsafe. Some will, but not all. At best, transactional Digital services take up in the private sector runs to around 80%, with industries such as in online banking and retail leading the way. Across the public sector the figure is nearer 65% on average, but this is skewed by basic information services. For transactions, the figure is much closer to 45%. In all cases, these services may miss an addressable market.

Digital services that are ‘familiar’, with analogue equivalents such as shopping, banking, and booking tickets online, tend to have the strongest take up. Public service interactions often do not have this familiarity. They require publicity and signposting. Some public services have Digital channels with comparatively high take-up levels. But even these have significant proportions of non-users among their target populations. And analysis suggests that even in the case of citizens who access services digitally, the quality of their service experience often depends on complementary non-Digital interactions.

Indeed, Digital propensity – whether citizens want to engage online – can be even more significant than familiarity.  Of course, that propensity will be nil in the case of those who cannot access Digital – often, paradoxically, those who would benefit most from Digital services. Yet even those who can use technology may be disinclined to interact Digitally with the state.

Hence, Digital access problems are not transitory. They will need to be dealt with fundamentally, through targeted and complementary support. ‘Digital by Default’ cannot mean ‘Digital only’.

The Four Horsemen of Digital Exclusion

There are four inhibitors to Digital engagement. These four ‘horsemen’ are not apocalyptic. But each adversely impacts public service Digital provision.

  • Access – According to the ONS, 18% of the UK adult population are still unable to access the internet. Although that number is falling gradually, this is driven by more than broadband availability. A hard core, often distinguished by factors such as age or socio-economic need, remains difficult to reach.
  • Capacity – Some users will not access Digital channels for reasons of education or aptitude. Even some of those who could may still need support to engage fully, owing to disability or other vulnerabilities
  • Skills – Many who would have little problem filling in a form online may find video conferencing or confidently using the latest apps more challenging than a Digital ‘insider’ would.
  • Motivation – Without the right incentives, citizens may not interact digitally with the frequency process designers expect. Understanding end-users’ service journeys and assessing where Digital would enhance their experience – and where it would prove alienating – are key to driving take up. Cultural and generational factors are particularly important here.

Poorly designed Digital services, which fail to anticipate problematic customer experiences, can generate additional costs and poor headlines rather than business benefits. Many will require afterthought bolt-on solutions even to accommodate the digitally able. For the digitally excluded, access problems can be fundamental and complex to overcome. Solutions for them are rarely easily achieved after the event.

The NAO’s recent Central Government Staff Costs report suggests that savings anticipated in the UK Government’s Digital transformation programmes may not be sustainable over the longer term. This may be due to the failure to factor all the desires and needs of potential users into design and to fully anticipate the challenges of reaching the excluded. A seemingly cheaper service which fails isn’t really a cheaper service at all.  Government’s reputation suffers. More importantly the citizens for whom the services have been designed in the first place suffer too.

The right approach – Digital inclusion and assistance by default

Public sector organisations must proactively ‘catch’ all citizens in scope of their new services, and ‘nudge’ as many as possible into Digital channels where appropriate. This requires a multi-dimensional approach to identify, predict, measure and manage likely demand, and reach potentially excluded users. Indeed, Digital services should be designed with these users in mind from the outset. Digital inclusion (for those that could probably engage online with a little support) or assisted Digital (for those who can’t or won’t), both require realistic mechanisms for consistent citizen access that encourage take up.

Building deep knowledge of all the users Digital services are intended for, and understanding the factors influencing their behaviour, can promote robust design, ensure accurate modelling of business case assumptions, and help track service take up. Customer segmentation can embed users’ differing and evolving requirements and access challenges in the Digital service design, helping determine the additional support needed in those instances where Digital does not provide the complete solution. Importantly, the framework this provides will enable services to ‘learn’ more about their users, and flex and adapt as user needs change. Adopting these approaches in the planning phase and throughout the life of a Digital channel will maximise uptake, build citizen trust through a superior customer experience, and ensure that those who need more specialised support receive it.

Successful approaches to inclusive and assisted Digital are service-specific. Some will need to retain mail, call-centre and face-to-face elements, or may require proxies (family and friends, or even dedicated professionals) to support vulnerable users.  These components must be integrated with the Digital offering at the outset to maintain a coherent customer experience. And the now old, but little acted-on commonplace of public service reform bears repeating. People’s life-experiences do not map to the boundaries of government departments. Digital initiatives are more likely to succeed if they are fashioned around how people actually live. To provide joined up, simplified and responsive services for the critical events, needs and challenges citizens face almost invariably necessitates multi-agency approaches.

Empowering citizens to help themselves, through straightforward and well-signposted services, reduces the need for unnecessary and costly intermediation. But some will still need additional ‘ramps and side-guards’ to be able to play. These will range from early interventions, such as better Digital education, to access support, including complementary, well planned, non-Digital processes. Inclusion measures should underpin and be built into the costings of all Digital initiatives. Otherwise services will fail and predicted economies will prove false. Striking the right balance between Digital service provision and mediated support is key to enabling government to truly deliver on the Digital agenda. 

Written by Stuart Robinson, Senior Manager at EY, as part of the MCA Year of Digital.