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Is it time to rethink the UK's ‘digital first’ approach to local and central government?

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A health professional using a hi-tech computer dashboard

‘Digital exclusion’ and ‘digital poverty’ laid bare by covid, says academic

Is the UK’s ‘digital first’ approach to local and central government excluding some people? That’s the question being asked by a forum led by the University of Bradford.

Some 30 delegates representing the public sector, think tanks, charities and NGOs will gather to brainstorm possible solutions to what has become known as ‘digital exclusion’ and ‘digital poverty’ - instances where people either do not have access to computers and/or the internet.

Highlighting digital inequality

Professor Vishanth Weerakkody, Dean of the Faculty of Management, Law and Social Sciences and Professor of Digital Governance, will lead the latest workshop.

He said the covid pandemic had thrown a spotlight on digital exclusion and highlighted how such inequalities have left some people deprived.

“A good example of digital exclusion are the families who either do not own computers or do not have access to the internet for homeschooling. Indeed, we had a proportion of our own students who fell into this category and the university spent a considerable amount of money making sure they all had access.

“However, it is a problem not just confined to education but other sections of society. The UK Government has been forced to re-think it’s ‘digital by default’’ approach, which says that all aspects of service provision should be online first and in some cases only. We can see this with things like Universal Credit, where people have to claim their benefits online.”

Prof Weerakoddy added it is important to come up with solutions to avoid expensive failures, such as the NHS’s £7bn National Programme for IT, which was dismantled a decade ago.

He said: “Although some parts of that programme have been successful - such as the Electronic Prescription System and the Choose and Book system -  it was classed as a failure overall. The object of our latest workshop is to come up with ideas which we will then present to policy makers across central and local government as tenable solutions.”

Background

The Transforming Government (tGov) workshop series has been running since 2007, first at Brunel University London and lately at the University of Bradford.

The next session will be on February 8 from 1.30pm-5pm - it will link in with related events run by partner organisations SOCITM and St George’s House Windsor.

The proposed theme for 2021 is to rethink “digitally enabled” strategies and operating models for public services where they have a statutory duty or practical need to reach groups that are not “online”, looking beyond web-orientated processes.

In a debate in the House of Lords Public Services Committee in November 2020, it was noted: “Advances in digital technology should be used to increase access to public services, particularly for hard-to-reach groups, but should be applied intelligently. Online services should never replace face-to-face services if to do so would disadvantage the service user.”

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