The Government Digital Service’s “Digital Inclusion Team”


Steering a thus far successful Government Digital Service away from the elephant traps in all things digital inclusion

Puffles at GovUK Towers - visiting the Government Digital Service in Holborn, London
Puffles at GovUK Towers – visiting the Government Digital Service in Holborn, London

Apologies for two blogposts in quick succession. I was tipped off on this one by Charlotte Jee on something that had sort of slipped below my radar. Basically there are a number of things that are making me go ***eeek!*** with this, and I want to help GDS not fall into the traps that have befallen other similar attempts to deal with the digital divide. I’ve helped out Cabinet Office/GDS before – including on the social media guidance for civil servants. See if you can spot Puffles getting a mention in this post.

Digital inclusion – what is it?

Charlotte quoted Cabinet Office as follows:

“Assisted digital for those who can’t get online, while digital inclusion is about encouraging people to go online, getting them online and ensuring they have the skills to make the most of being online. It is aimed at individuals but also businesses and charities.”

It’s a useful definition to have. ‘Assisted digital’ schemes for example are likely to target those people that, for whatever reason:

  • Cannot afford the hardware required to access the internet
  • Cannot afford the payments required to access the internet service providers
  • Cannot use the internet with standard equipment because, say of a disability

Digital inclusion is about those that don’t have the barriers above, but (and again for whatever reason) are ***choosing*** to stay away from the internet and social media.

What are the risks?

Anna Maren of GDS has stated its three aims here. I’ll list them:

  • review the evidence that’s out there and carry out some new research, to help us better understand what works and how to measure it
  • coordinate efforts in government departments and work closely with the devolved administrations, so they add up to more than the sum of their parts
  • partner with Go ON UK and local, public, private and voluntary organisations to improve and scale up existing efforts

The first question you ask of any policy is: What are the risks? Now, when it comes to policy risks, Cabinet Office has form for getting stung by Puffles the Dragon Fairy. (See here). When Whitehall does good stuff, we praise them – as we did here. When it messes up, Puffles gives them a kicking. (It reflects Puffles’ ‘Chaotic good‘ traits). Being outside Whitehall but having spent years inside it before means that I have far more licence to criticise policies in public than the civil servants inside the system can. So please, do that risk assessment that Francis Maude didn’t do for the outsourcing of policy!

Have some government departments given the GDS a broken cricket bat with which to take to the crease?

…trying to paraphrase Geoffrey Howe’s words, have some of the actions already taken in previous years made the job of the GDS much harder? Put simply: Yes.

Why so?

Libraries and community groups that might otherwise deliver the sort of training needed to get the ‘hard to reach’ parts of society using the internet confidently have been severely affected by the cuts to public services. The impact on local government means that the traditional routes the civil service may have used in previous years simply do not exists, as such services fight for their lives. In particular with ‘Big Society’ policy, ministers did not appreciate the close links between local government and community groups. Hitting local government hard fatally undermined big society policy. When I put this point to one of the Prime Minister’s former advisers, Philip Blond, at a talk at Anglia Ruskin University earlier this year, he “didn’t disagree”.

Given the policies of, in particular the Department for Communities and Local Government, along with the Localism Act, Whitehall is no longer in a position to compel local government to do the things it did under the previous administration. Assuming there is a project/programme board for this policy, who are the external partners on it? Is there someone from local government? (In particular, is there someone from local government who is familiar with two/three tier working – ie not just someone from a London borough?)

Persuading people fearful/hostile towards the internet/social media, to use it takes a lot of hard work and face-to-face engagement.

I’m finding this out the hard way at a local level. At the moment it feels like I’m making very slow progress, wading through treacle. Each person that sees the benefits of what they can achieve is a victory, even if it is one person at a time. But the GDS simply does not have the time and resources to do this themselves. Hence having to do things through organisations such as GO-ON UK.

What is the context?

The hardest part of persuading people to take to social media or the internet is trying to find both what ‘makes people tick’ as well as finding out what makes them freeze with fear, regarding all things online. If what’s available online does not relate to the individual, there’s no incentive. If you cannot help them overcome their fears with all things online, frozen in fear is where they will remain. Different things will appeal to different people. For example with one audience recently it was the mainstream media coverage I got through my social media platform that changed their mindset. With another group, it was the holders of elected public office following Puffles that changed their mindset. For a further group it was finding out about what was happening in their local community, and being able to filter according to their interests, that changed their mind. But that process is very emotionally and time intensive. It doesn’t just require knowing your audience, but knowing your and their community too.

One-off workshops alone are limited

Again, I’ve found out the hard way. The key word in the phrase ‘social media’ is the word ‘social’ – it implies a conversation. How are people going to be able to continue the conversation both with like-minded people and have access to experts as and when they come across problems?

So…what are the solutions?

That in part depends on the outcomes of the review of evidence and on the research they commission and the data sets they can get hold of. It also depends on the strategy they publish in the new year. It’s no good me suggesting solutions now if the strategy the GDS comes up with is one that takes it in a completely different direction, or if it’s one that’s vetoed by a secretary of state in another department. These things do happen.

There are a whole host of other questions that stem from the points I’ve made in this blogpost, but it looks like me and Puffles will be watching the development of this policy area with interest.


2 thoughts on “The Government Digital Service’s “Digital Inclusion Team”

  1. I have to admit I’m sceptical about the commitment to Digital Inclusion, as if they really want to ensure that as many people as possible are able to use Government digital services, then those services should be designed with ease of public use at the heart of the requirements. And from using the regurgitated dogs’ breakfast that is the Universal Jobmatch site, it’s clear that user experience was an afterthought, if it was even considered at all. I’m hardly an IT novice and I find it difficult to use effectively, the help section frequently unhelpful, and the password setup/reset process positively byzantine. Thankfully my Mum’s retired, cos I’d hate to try to talk her through it over the phone.

    The trouble is, in order to make digital services inclusive is going to take time and money to do properly, and they’re usually in short supply.

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