Councils and citizens both stand to gain from 'inclusive' IT

Written by Gill Hitchcock on 24 February 2016 in Features

With almost two-thirds of over-75s offline, Gill Hitchcock looks into why councils must put accessibility and channel choice at the heart of IT development

People should not feel like second-class citizens because they don’t use the internet. But as local authorities look to push services online in the face of mounting pressure to save money, they risk offering some residents a second-rate deal. 

According to the Office for National Statistics, 24% of people aged 65 to 74 have never used the internet, and the proportion rises to 61% for those aged 75 and over. This compares to fewer than 1% of people in the 16 to 34 age bracket.

Among the chief reasons why over 75s contact their local authority are housing benefit and council tax support issues, or applying to the “blue badge” scheme, which gives priority parking to people with poor mobility.

Lobby group and sharer of best practice the Local Government Association singles out Kent County Council’s online blue badge improvement service as an exemplar of engagement. Every year the council faces the huge task of processing more than 23,000 applications and has 77,000 badges in circulation across its area.

Kent’s scheme provides direct digital access for the public to apply for blue badges, as well as secure eligibility checking and processing for the council, the LGA says. It has saved more than £300,000 and significantly speeded up the process of giving eligible people their badges.

But there is another side to this type of change. While digital-first services may be great for local government, they can be tough for users. Charity Age UK’s Later Life in a Digital World report covers the case of a blue badge user who contacted his council to provide his new address. He was told he must do this online. Eventually he managed to get someone to drive him to a council office where he could register his change of address in person. Some applicants, unable to deal with digital registration, simply give up.

Online services can be a barrier to benefits, too. Age UK says many older people are reluctant to claim the support they are entitled to. For example, older people miss out on £3.7bn of pension credit and housing benefit every year. It estimates that 260,000 low income older tenants are entitled to housing benefit but not claiming it, and warns that this figure could rise if local authorities expect people to claim online.

What’s to be done? Designing technology to be as user-friendly as possible is key. This is not only good for citizens, but for councils too if fewer people seek costly phone or face-to-face contact. 

Croydon is among some of the councils to have used a website redesign as an opportunity improve accessibility. The south London authority's previous website was built on an old and unsupported content management system, so that it was slow and content did not always display properly. The redesign, ahead of the launch of a new site in 2015, involved testing with a range of users to find out how they navigated the site, what they did and didn’t like, and how they completed tasks.

“The easier online services are to use, the more likely people are to use them,” says Sally West, public policy adviser for Age UK. “But there are some people who are learning to use the internet, want to do things online and are still struggling with how to do it.

“So I think it is important to help people gain those skills. Age UK does a lot of digital training, helping people gain confidence, and clearly local authorities do too.”

Under the Equality Act 2010, councils have responsibilities to promote equality of opportunity for a range of social groups, including older people. So as part of any service redesign, IT chiefs should be thinking about appropriate alternatives alongside new technology. 

“Many older people do use the internet and get a huge amount of benefit from it,” says West. “But not everyone is online and if councils are digitising services, they should make them as easy as possible to use. It’s so important that people are not left behind.”

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Submitted on 3 March, 2016 - 13:27
Sadly, more often than not, the real reasons that things are left woefully and poorly prepared for 'minority audiences' (and that is not meant to denigrate these audiences at all, but to emphasise how they are often viewed) is because Councils and Council IT teams want to see their efforts 'best allocated'. This misses a point though. The real issue we face in transformation is the very minorities mentioned, be they aged, inexperiences, unlucky or otherwise indisposed. That final 10%/20% is so often seen as 'the hard bit'. Sorry, there are no excuses here. The answer? Simplify could have been done many years ago. I have been an advocate of the 'grasp-the-nettle' theory of change. Short term discomfort, dealt with, should help resolve the problem, but we cannot simply give up or worry about the sting! We are all now in a world where most of the major hurdles to making pervasive digital content are pretty well resolved. It is those who hang on to outdated, inefficient methodologies who might make their lives easier, but who fail to help their services. How can a Council that consistently gets a low rating on "Better Connected" and which consistently fails in accessibility or mobile access think it is doing anyone any favours? No, it guarantees its own failure where success matters most. Stop doing the easy things - think strategically and you will help solve the biggest challenges of the most needy - as well as your own.

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