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British Government's 'Digital By Default' Plans Challenged

Mar 25, 2013 (10:03 AM EDT)

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The British government has said it wants to make its services, especially for welfare, "digital by default," meaning the preferred way to make information and applications available will be via computer or electronic access. The rationale: digital is less expensive for the cash-strapped government to implement and also easier for an increasingly digital generation to work with.

"By introducing new digital services and redesigning old ones, we expect to save the taxpayer and service users around £1.2 billion ($1.8 billion) by 2015, and at least £1.7 billion ($2.6 billion) a year thereafter," Civil Society Minister Nick Hurd told the House of Commons just last week, adding that the current administration aims to digitize 600 government transactions in the near future.

But not everyone is convinced digital is always the way to go, and one Opposition Labor member of Parliament wants to debate the problem of British digital exclusion. John Robertson, who represents Glasgow North West, earlier this month tabled an early-day motion to discuss the lack of Internet use among vulnerable groups.

In the motion, Robertson acknowledges that "the U.K. has the highest Internet usage in Europe," but then goes on to say that according to government statistics, nearly 90% of people who have used the Internet are under 65; that 53% of people who have never been online have a disability; and that only 74% of those claiming the main form of unemployment assistance, Jobseeker's Allowance, have a home broadband connection.

[ With digital progress comes cyber mischief. Read British Government Bolsters Anti-Cybercrime Measures. ]

Robertson said that although stats indicate that 81% of U.K. households use the Internet once a week, "disadvantaged groups are the least likely to be within this 81%." According to a government report published late last year, 7.4 million Britons have never used the Internet, and that even in London, which has the largest concentration of Internet users, 15% of residents rarely venture into cyberspace, he said.

The focus of Robertson's attack is the government's imminent shift to Universal Credit, where the country's complex welfare and benefits will be rolled into one big IT-based system. Starting this fall, applicants and recipients will be expected to use this new system online for the most part, although the state says it will provide some telephone support as well.

Robertson wants the British government to "initiate a strategy for increasing Internet take-up and Internet provision amongst vulnerable groups, such as elderly people, those on low incomes and disabled people," as these are the groups who risk the most problems using such new systems.

The Coalition Government is pushing hard for digital by default, led by its Government Digital Service, which has a large portrait of the new "Digital Baroness of Soho" Martha Lane-Fox on its office wall. Lane-Fox, an early British dot com pioneer, wrote a report on the urgent need to digitize the British public sector in 2010.

But some argue that the drive to modernity and efficiency is happening at the expense of the technologically less advanced. "We know that ICT [information and communications technology] can make government more accessible and save money. But the government have abandoned the universal broadband pledge and failed on digital inclusion," Labor MP Chi Onwurah said in a separate debate on current Coalition digital ambitions last week.

"Seventy-five percent of over-75s and a third of people with disabilities are still not online," said Onwurah. "In those circumstances, is digital by default not simply digital exclusion by diktat?"

So far, Robertson has attracted almost 50 backers, so it looks as if politicians will have to respond to his issues soon.

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