This session was led by Carolyne Mitchell who opened by saying that there is no Scottish Digital Inclusion policy at the moment but she had attended a recent London event and wanted to raise this as a question.
Carolyne referred to a report and this is where my notes fail me. I think she referred to the “Soughton Report” but I cannot find a link online for that and would ask that anyone that can correct this and/or add a link do so in the comments for this post. There is a set of UK Digital Inclusion reports that may be relevant and/or interesting though.
The report showed the various costs of council transactions with service users:
- Face to face interactions cost, on average, £6.00.
- Phone interactions cost around £2.00.
- Online interactions cost roughly £0.60.
These costs look good on paper and support the use of online services but moving mainly or purely online could exclude many people and that worries me.
Catherine: The statistics in Martha Lane Fox’s “Networked Nation” manifesto (as discussed in the Guardian for instance) showed 47% of those on low incomes are not online. We did a pilot of online services where we found that libraries weren’t used for accessing these services, instead people preferred to use the computers and internet connections of their friends or workplaces. People saw libraries as heavily regulated and not helpful. However you could see that when they had reason to use online services they were fine with doing this.
Carolyne: One Stop Shop staff have identified many online services that could be used for the type of queries we get but many people prefer using a face to face service. We have to be set up to cater to all of these groups.
Nicola: The Oxford Internet Surveys are really interesting for indicating who is and is not online. Most of those who are not online now are not online by choice. In some cases, especially households with children, it comes down to costs but for most others they are not online by choice rather than because of costs or lack or opportunity.
Alastair: Why push folk online though? You don’t die without Internet.
Peter: Also older people are online too – there are great anecdotes around older people moving online to communicate with relatives for instance.
James: But banks are going back to having physical branches – face to face is really important.
Catherine: What models are we talking about here?
Carolyne: Our community centres had wifi but this is usually the first thing to be cut. We run computer literacy courses in libraries and community centre but I wonder if these address the right needs – we have courses on how to shop online, how to book holidays but why not base these courses on learning how to get essential services from the council website? Some tasks are entirely wrong for the people that need this training.
Alastair: I know that council planning portals include 20GB PDFs – this is terrible for accessibility and inclusion as you’d need an enormous connection speed to access these documents. Guidelines around what gets posted to council websites are crucial to making them work. The way online services are delivered is also important.
Carolyne: I want to see schools as hubs of the community linking up different ages around learning. We are losing touch with the needs of those we service.
Mike: Would the UK Online Centres work for this?
Tim: Maybe mobile is the way forward? More people have mobiles than computers.
James: The old council office was where you used to go to pay and access all the different services. Now there are multiple centres, different ones for different tasks. It would be better to have one simple office for working with people to show them how to access what they need. The electronic bit isn’t the service here, the service is.
Carolyne: I was recently a secret shopper for services for impending homelessness. I found I received different answers in different places and very different messages. Online was not bad but one of the routes asked me to send them my postal address to send information to which, in this case, is obviously not useful at all. However when you campare all these routes you still have to remember that the cost of face to face interactions is huge.
Nicola: No matter what the front end is to look like you also have to make sure the back end process works as well. There are lots of changes needed to ensure there is a good user experience (e.g. making sure information makes sense and is consistent, not changing council tax account numbers each year so that automatic payments are easy to set up and maintain without unnecessary phone calls, etc.) for those that can access and want to access online or phone services so that those expensive face to face interactions are the most useful they can be (rather than simply raising issues easily answered online).
Carolyne: There can be a sense that anything that increases self-service might put people out of a job, there can be a real culture of resistance.
James: That is the prevailing attitude in the council.
Carolyne: Also online services do have downsides. Our Q&A staff are trained by various organisations to provide lots of indirect checks on our service users, so they have been trained by the police to spot signs of domestic violence for instance.
Tim: South Korea is great for the provision of online services.
Mike: Yes but South Korea is a true online society with huge bandwidth universally available.
Mike and Carolyne: Internet should be required in all planning applications for new buildings to help ensure there is better and more equal provision here.
Carolyne: Lack of access can be a real disadvantage for university and school students who are expected to be able to look things up online without any thought to whether or not they have access.
Mike: This impinges on school work particularly: all sorts of sites are blocked and teachers recommend their pupils look at the sites at home instead and just assume there will be access and fast enough access.
Carolyne: Staff often don’t have a clue and need training to be able to support people. Libraries should be where you can try things out but right now the mixture of restrictions, blocked sites and limited access to machines means the opposite is the case.
Nicola: Bandwidth is pricey – I’m sure this is the reason so many councils and schools block many sites and online tools.
Comment: The biggest cost for the Scottish Government access is bandwidth and our concern is also the risk of the network rolling over, this is the sole reason we block many websites.
James: By including only some types or formats of website these types of blocks are actually excluding people. They challenge or break council policy on inclusion.
Carolyne: The problem seems to be the flat management structure. We have great front line staff but out of touch Managers. A third of the population here does not have internet access but this is not properly understood.
James: This is part of the prejudice of living in socially deprived areas.
And on that note our session finished and we were off for the final summing up of the day.