I finally got round to watching I, Daniel Blake this weekend. A film directed by Ken Loach and written by Paul Laverty, which very deservedly won Outstanding British Film at the 2017 BAFTAs. In light of heightened political opinion following the election, there is so much that could, and has already been said about this heart breaking film. The social housing crisis; dependency on Food Banks; and sanctions use in the Department of Work and Pensions are instantly recognisable as features of the current government’s continuing policy of austerity. However, for me, the social commentary that struck home most was my bread and butter: digital literacy and digital access.
“You have to apply online sir.”
Throughout the film, the government’s Digital by Default Service Standard is big, brash and in your face. Introduced in 2014, the original 26 criteria points of Digital by Default were introduced to encourage those with digital access to do so. In it’s latest rendition, the service standard sets out 18 criteria for digital teams to follow, when producing the digital formats of the most used government services, e.g., registering to vote, managing your taxes, claiming a carer’s allowance, etc. Contact telephone numbers are online, assessment forms are online, Universal Jobmatch is online. However, the GOV.UK website specifically states: “Assisted digital support is an integral part of any service, helping users who can’t complete the service on their own.”
The reason for the introduction of Digital by Default Service Standard is simple: it saves the government money, and it saves the citizen time. Paper-based services are generally more costly in administration time than digital, and on the whole, digital provides a much more readily available and accessible solution to paper-based services for its users. Going digital saves on staffing and processing costs, whilst also opening up the possibility for easily maintained reporting, data and performance analysis, and user satisfaction monitoring. However, as with all things, there are user barriers that must be considered.
“Right, can you give us that ‘coz with computers, I’m dyslexic.”
No two users are identical. You’ll forgive me this broad brush over a fairly technical issue, however, anyone who has worked on the production of a digital solution to one which was previously paper-based, knows user stories or user profiles are usually (and should be) coming out of your ears by the time the initial analysis for the project is complete. Without comprehensive analysis of a user base, a solution will always lack something, for someone.
This presents as a double edged sword, and is often partly responsible for the improvements, and later variations of a digital service, during the life of said solution. Where a digital solution isn’t already present – understanding of a user base, and collection of data to be used for intelligence is often very difficult. Imagine trawling through a year’s worth of Jobcentre paper applications for Jobseeker’s Allowance and trying to make some semblance of sense from these without digital.
To put this into perspective, consider the latest from the Office of National Statistics from January to March 2017: There were 1.54 million unemployed people (people not in work but seeking and available to work). That’s potentially (and for the sake of this argument) 1.54 million users of 1 government service. 1.54 million people that need to be considered and thought about when designing a digital process and solution, which allows the claimant to make a claim for Jobseeker’s Allowance. Do claimants operate differently depending on age, education, disability, literacy level, postcode, previous employment, digital literacy, digital access, whether or not they have dependants living with them…the list is endless. And without a database with very many rows and columns to query, producing a once-size-fits-all digital solution is a very hard gig.
Zero digital skills. As is the case with the character Daniel Blake, digital literacy is not a given. In the UK, with an aging population, it’s safe to assume that there are citizens who will need to use a government service, who are unable to use a computer. Coupled with high WIFI fees and a state pension, you may also have a user group without access to digital. Is it enough to slap “Assisted digital support is an integral part of any service, helping users who can’t complete the service on their own.” across the GOV.UK website, and assume that this box is ticked?
Providing for disabilities. No two persons with a disability are the same. Therefore particularly careful attention, and a wealth of knowledge needs to be applied when designing digital solutions for persons with a disability. Assistive solutions are often helpful, but costly. Advances and updates to assistive solutions, even more so. User monitoring and review is absolutely paramount in providing appropriate services, and all too often in the past, users with a disability have not been considered, when designing processes and software to support these. It is often assumed that a person with a disability will be a dependant, and therefore will be supported by a carer or family member. This simply, is not the case. Southward, in What Does Digital by Default mean? sums this up rather succinctly: “If you enter the digital world then ensure your interface is based on user requirements and not built for businesses. Navigation is vital, especially for users with impairments.”
“I’m just going round in circles.”
It’s all a bit negative this, isn’t it? But it’s worth considering, and it’s worth debate. I don’t have a one-size-fits-all solution to digital literacy and digital access, and I tip my hat to anyone working for a more comprehensive and accessible Department of Work and Pensions.
The next time you use one of the Government’s services, consider how you would have gone about it: without online access; without having the physical ability to type or write; without being able to read; or having never used a computer before.
Sources: I, Daniel Blake. (2016). [DVD] UK: Sixteen Films | GOV.UK | Digital by Default News | Southward, I (2014). What Does Digital by Default mean? (https://www.arrkgroup.com/thought-leadership/what-does-digital-by-default-mean/) |Lawton, R (2015). Digitising public services in the UK: An introduction (https://www.arrkgroup.com/thought-leadership/digitising-public-services-in-the-uk-an-introduction/) | England, A (2015). Putting the User First. Manchester, Arrk Limited.