Opinion: The government must remember those who struggle to use the internet as services are moved online, argues Michelle Mitchell

Digital technology offers tremendous opportunities for people of all ages. Being able to buy groceries or access a huge amount of information at the click of a button is fantastic, as is the ability to keep in touch with loved ones via email, video link and social media. However, although the opportunities offered online are immense, there are real challenges for some when it comes to getting digitally connected in the first place.

By Civil Service World

14 Nov 2012

For example, almost all 16-24-year-olds (99 per cent) have used the internet (7.17 million people in the UK), but only 29 per cent of adults aged 75 years and over have done so. It is therefore timely for the government to produce a digital strategy (see p3) that sets out how it plans to become ‘digital by default’.

Age UK believes that while no older person should feel dragooned to go online if they don’t want to, older people should be encouraged and supported to get online if they are able and can afford to do so. We warmly welcome the government’s objective of providing digital services that are “so straightforward and convenient that all those who can use them will choose to do so”.

At the same time, with nearly 8m adults in the UK having never accessed the internet, it must be recognised that not everyone who uses government services is online or able to use digital services independently. To ensure fair access to services for those entitled to them, the government’s strategy sets out what it calls ‘assisted digital’: people will be supported to use digital services by public workers available on the phone, face to face and via intermediaries. The government suggests that in some cases people will be helped and trained to use digital channels themselves, and that seems important to us too.

In practice, then, the strategy has two parts: helping people to get online; and providing other ways into digital services. Age UK believes that they must go alongside a third crucial element: ensuring that good, non-digital methods of accessing essential services remain.

It is clear that older people potentially have much to gain from getting online, but the benefits will only be delivered if the technology is accessible, affordable and attractive to them. Earlier this year the government announced which cities would be eligible to receive funding to become ‘super-connected’. This is on top of a concerted effort to increase rural connectivity. Whilst these are both positive steps forward, improvements to infrastructure must go hand in hand with comprehensive training programmes to give people the skills they need to use the internet. Local and national government, along with the private sector, stand to gain from more people accessing their services online, so they must be willing to invest in suitable training programmes and targeted local awareness-raising campaigns. Such an approach, financed from the substantial projected savings of delivering services online, would realise the benefits of this technology for both the individual and government.

Currently the majority of people over 75, around a third of people aged 65 to 74, and about one in six people coming up to retirement have missed out on the digital revolution. In addition, there are still many people who lack sufficient skills or confidence to undertake many online tasks. So there is a real concern that those who do not want to or cannot become connected could become marginalised. The fear is that the more people go online, the more the pressure will grow to close any remaining offline services – particularly as the overhead cost per user will increase. There is also the risk that as the government moves services online, the private sector may follow suit and withdraw offline services.

Therefore we urge the government to continue to ensure that offline methods to access government services remain in place so that no-one loses out. It is also important that assisted digital services are straightforward and consistent across government departments, so that people know what to expect when dealing with different government services.

Earlier this year, Age UK became a founder partner of Go ON UK: a cross-sector partnership with a programme of work to help make the UK the world’s most digitally-capable nation. Other founder partners are the BBC, Big Lottery Fund, E.ON, Lloyds Banking Group, Post Office, EE and TalkTalk. Age UK supports Go ON UK because we recognise that it offers a great opportunity for the voices of older people to be heard at the highest level of the digital debate, so they really do influence the next phase of digital development in this country and are in the best possible position to share the gains.

Read the most recent articles written by Civil Service World - 'What keeps you awake at night?': A guide to the government risk management profession

Share this page