Why government departments need to be aware of factors beyond ability to use a computer
We had a discussion about this at a gathering that replaced the postponed UKGovCamp (which had to be called off due to the snow).
Digital by default
It trips off the tongue and basically means that the method for delivering basic public services – such as paying taxes, providing information and receiving social security payments is online. A recent article by Francis Maude outlines further progress on this. While society’s direction of travel is one where more of us are becoming familiar with and are taking the internet for granted, what do you do about people who, for whatever reason cannot access online services?
Easier said than done. The problem with being inside the Whitehall and Westminster bubble is that it’s not easy to empathise with those outside of it – especially if life inside the bubble is all you’ve experienced in your career. Hence why I believe diversity going far beyond the box-ticking is essential across the piece so that problems and issues that are mainly found beyond, are acknowledged and fed into decision-making processes. The most basic one from a public administration perspective is dealing with local government. Those living and working in London may only be used to a single tier of government. Down the road from me are wards that have parish councils – thus THREE tiers of local government: County/Shire that deals with things like schools and transport, district/borough that deals with things like leisure and bin collections, and parish, which deals with things like maintaining a local village hall or bus stops and village greens.
No, really. Define accessibility
Well, the two things that we focussed on at the weekend were around basic IT skills, and being able to either get hold of, or get to somewhere that has free access to the hardware and the software. (e.g Library). If you don’t have basic competency to use the hardware and software needed to access the services, the services are inaccessible. If you cannot afford the hardware and software – and the online subscriptions to the internet, the services are inaccessible. If you cannot get to anywhere where using them is free – e.g. a library, the services are inaccessible.
How do you increase accessibility?
This is where public service delivery becomes more complex – and where you realise the impact of other departments’ policies start impacting on what you are trying to do. For example if you want to deal with making free services more available with one hand, it doesn’t help if you are cutting funding for libraries with the other. Remember in the mindset of much of the public, the state is a singular institution. It’s not the series of competing interests that those of us who have spent time in, or who are inside the system see it as.
You then have the issue of people’s skills. How can you increase accessibility if you are cutting back funding to those institutions that provide the courses and the facilities that can deliver such training? How can you get to the people who are often hardest to reach as far as the state is concerned, if at a local level you are cutting back on your community development functions?
Basic computer skills is one thing, but what about basic literacy?
That’s how big your problem is. Then you have to ask what other barriers that 5.2million adults are likely to face. Are they likely to be aware that these new online services are there? Are they likely to have the IT skills to use them? Are they likely to have the hardware and the software to access them? Are they likely to be able to get to somewhere where they can access them? (Or rather, ‘to what extent are they…’ to all of those questions). How do all of the answers to those questions vary by things like geography, distribution of wealth, urban/rural divide etc.
The challenge for Whitehall?
“Who are you talking and listening to?” would be my first question. The next one would be “Who’s taking the lead? -> Who is responsible and accountable? (And who can I escalate things to when things get tough?)
Francis Maude at Cabinet Office, responsible for all things digital clearly has an interest, but so to does Iain Duncan Smith at the Department for Work and Pensions. But then so to does David Willets in terms of adult education at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. If we’re talking about libraries as a point of access then the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have an interest. As libraries are the responsibility for local government, then the Department for Communities and Local Government will have an interest too. As all of this costs money, the dead hand of The Treasury will also be there with its pair of scissors. And that’s before we’ve even looked at executive agencies, local government and the voluntary & community sector.
What was the problem again?
Digital exclusion. Can you see how the you end up forgetting about the wood for the trees? So much time can be spent how to manage all of those often competing interests that you forget about the overall problem you are trying to overcome.
“So Pooffles, what’s the answer?”
I don’t have one. This post just goes to illustrate how complex public policy making is. It’s not like making widgets in the private sector where the bottom line is what counts. In the public sector there are a whole series of different metrics that you are being measured by. What might be your priority may not be the priority of someone else. Other organisations may not have the capacity to step up to what you are asking of them. Other things may have started that are difficult to reverse. It’s one of the reasons why in many graduate recruitment processes, they have an exercise where you are all representing a different interest, all wanting a different outcome and as a group you have to come to a single decision or you have all failed the task. (i.e. who is the one who gives ground and on what grounds?)
There are a couple of basic exercises Whitehall can do though
First of all you make a list of anyone and everyone who might have an interest in the policy you are working on. Who are your stakeholders? (You normally list groups rather than individuals). You then create a graph, drawing interest on the X-axis and influence on the Y-axis. You then place on that graph where you think each group on that list should be. Those with the highest influence and interest are the ones to pay particular attention to. For the others, their levels of influence & interest will impact on how you handle each one.
Should be a standard policy tool, but it’s where you ask people to put themselves in the mindset of someone charged with ensuring the complete and catastrophic failure of the policy. Then you think about all the things you could do to ensure this. Reverse these and you have the basis of a risk register. What do you then do to mitigate for these? During my civil service days I ran a few workshops taking people through this process. It took a few minutes for people to get their heads around the process but managed to break habits of lifetimes spent on trying to make things work rather than trying to deliberately sabotage things.
I’ve listed those two for people with no experience of policy-making. There are many more policy-making exercises that Whitehall use for problem-solving when developing policy. I sometimes wonder what the impact would be with political parties if they went through similar exercises on their policies. For example this one from Labour on private rented housing. I’ve chosen this one because I’ve blogged about this issue before – and because Puffles has more followers in Labour than in the Coalition parties. Also, as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are in government, they have a civil service to develop their policies for them. Labour, in opposition do not. Hence the document concerned is explicitly a party political document rather than a document of government put together by civil servants under the guidance of, and signed off by ministers.
[Updated to add]:
Tom Loosemore of the Government Digital Service pointed Puffles in the direction of the Government’s approach to ‘digital assisted’. [<<–Clicky!] Well worth a read – and feel free to give feedback too.
The strapline for ‘digital by default’ is “Digital services so good that people prefer to use them” – but providing help for those that (for whatever reason) cannot use them.