Digital by default for government services risks widening divide
The UK is already one of the most digitally engaged nations in the world, and the desire to push to its ultimate conclusion where we stop picking up the telephone to ask questions about tax codes and or heaven forbid try to talk to someone physically in an office is very strong. The belief that a fully digital strategy would generate £1.7 to £1.8 billion a year in savings is the key driver, not necessarily an improvement in service levels to the public.
The costs of the various contact methods in a BBC News article highlight the scale of the savings, a face to face meeting with a local council costs £8.62, over the phone £2.83 and just 15p via a website. Though it is not clear whether things like the development costs of the website, and whether the outcome was what the public sought are mentioned.
One of the changes coming is Universal Credit that wraps up Jobseeker's Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support, Child Tax Credits, Working Tax Credits and Housing Benefit into a single payment, with the aim being that as many people as possible will manage their claim online. For many the benefits system is seen as something that affects other people, but in an economy where companies can shut down and staff be made redundant overnight, what is of no concern this week, can suddenly be your only form of support.
Therefore the push for ubiquitous broadband is important, and is partly why the USC is set so low at 2 Mbps, as the costs to ensure this can be met should be fairly low and easily achievable. In some countries ubiquitous broadband is seen as delivered when a community centre or local library has some form of connection, so while the 2 Mbps USC is often criticised it is better than what we have seen other countries be very proud about. The previous Labour government had planned the USC to come into effect in 2012, but the Conservatives shortly after coming to power changed the timetable to 2015.
Now add into this mix the idea that for those who are in social housing tenants should be provided with free broadband. This was raised by Jake Perry (MP for Rossendale and Darwen) receiving wide support in the House of Commons, but a less favourable reaction by the wider public. To some extent the public reaction is to be expected, as many people work hard and while they accept the need for a safety net they may feel it is one step too far for their tax money to subsidise free broadband for some. We have seen schemes where social housing landlords are putting in a wireless service, which is free at a basic usage level, but for those using it more there is a subscription element.
The real question is what effect this may have on the commercial market, UK broadband is already some of the cheapest in the world, part of this is down to the credit checking and long contracts which put the poorest at a disadvantage, hence the existence of basic bank accounts.
In the five year term of the current Government, which may or may not end in 2015, the sum from central and local government spent on broadband will be around £1.5 billion. If the policy makers want to ensure that the digital divide is not widened they need to commit more money to ensuring a better base line service is available for all, as it is very likely that social housing landlords will deploy a service that actually makes the current 2 Mbps look like a 1999 broadband service.
Perhaps in our new utopia we can also look forward to better care for homeless people, improved literacy and numeracy and an upturn in the confidence of the UK as a whole.