As part of the government’s drive to deliver public services “digital by default”, 39 DVLA offices are set to close as services continue to move online. Francis Maude, the minister behind efforts to push services online, informed the Commons that:
“…we are looking, with my right hon friend the Secretary of State for Transport, at how [the DVLA] can be further modernised to improve service and save more money.”
And what of those without an internet connection?
Maude said a “number of functions and transactions” from the DVLA could already be carried out by the post office network. The DVLA also had “one of the best online services for renewing car tax”, he said.
Little comfort for the millions of people in the UK who do not have an internet connection, let alone those that have never used it. Indeed, the situation is further exacerbated by the upcoming introduction of the universal credit which will require application for benefits online. The introduction of the new benefits system has raised serious concerns, not least from Citizens Advice who point out:
”The new universal credit system risks causing difficulties to the 8.5 million people who have never used the internet and a further 14.5 million who have virtually no ICT [internet and communications technology] skills.”
The changes to the benefits system and the move towards digital by default will, without question, lead to greater isolation of the digitally excluded. It is clear that such policies will simply exacerbate and deepen the extent of the digital divide. Given the net result of these policies, it is curious that the government is focusing on providing faster broadband rather than shrinking the gap between the digital haves and the digital have-nots. With a little bit of joined up thinking, the government could and should address the widening divide.
Public libraries could, if adequately supported, provide a bridge for those who are currently digitally excluded. As a result of the People’s Network, the vast majority (if not all) libraries provide access to the internet. In many cases, public libraries provide access for free, although some authorities are removing free access and charging the public for the right to connect to the internet. Furthermore, library staff are experienced in providing assistance for those that experience difficulties accessing the internet. Indeed, many have had basic ICT training to enable them to provide such support. However, government policy is seriously undermining the level of support public libraries can provide for the digitally excluded both in terms of closures and hollowing out of the service.
Public libraries, as has been already established, are under threat across the UK. Many are either threatened with closure or local communities are blackmailed into taking them over. Where communities are forced to run them, so-called ‘volunteers’ (in reality they rarely provide the service voluntarily) are not sufficiently trained to provide the support that the digitally excluded require. Not only are the skills lacking, but amateurised libraries under pressure to ensure sufficient finance to provide the service, may increasingly look towards charging for internet access. Whether libraries are being closed or amateurised, it is the digitally excluded that will suffer.
There are a five things I would suggest the government could do to to address the concerns of the digital divide:
- Intervene to ensure that no further libraries are closed or local communities coerced into running them.
- Use lottery funding to provide basic ICT training for all public library staff (such funding was used when internet access was first rolled out to libraries).
- Abandon the focus on speed of connection and follow the example set by Finland of making internet access a fundamental human right thus ensuring coverage.
- Ensure every citizen has access to a broadband connection without charge, thus ensuring free access in all public libraries without exception.
- Switch from a “digital by default” policy to “digital first”, putting services online but ensuring that, for those who aren’t, there is an alternative.
These are just a few suggestions, admittedly there is an element of scrawling on the back of a fag packet about them, but I think they offer a starting point for discussion. I’d be interest to hear what others think should be done by central government to prevent the widening of the digital divide.