Social inclusion/exclusion has been a hot topic ever since the first moves to put public services online in the 1990s. With a recent BBC survey estimating that 21% of the population still lack basic digital skills and capabilities, the new Digital Inclusion Strategy aims to help tackle this shortfall.
Whilst tackling this capability gap is one dimension of inclusion, it’s far from being the only one. A whole spectrum of causes underlies the divide between those using and not using technology, including low income, people who simply aren’t interested in tech and never will be, people with certain disabilities or impairments, and also the variable quality of many existing online services, which are often frustrating and off-putting.
It’s important however that this important topic doesn’t become marginalised by the mistaken notion that ‘digital’ equates to “screen-based” service delivery. ‘Digital’ is much more significant than this: it’s about achieving a major cultural and business change, a shift that involves improving government’s internal structures, systems, operations and processes. Citizens themselves have long recognised this, with one respondent to a government study in 1998 commenting that technology-enabled improvements would enable government to "… ‘free-up’ staff time to deal with queries of a more complicated and sensitive nature.”
It seems slightly perverse then that talk of social inclusion often seems to focus quite narrowly on the challenges presented by online service delivery. After all, existing channels such as relationship-based frontline services and paper-based forms are not always glorious examples of socially inclusive service provision either. Indeed, that same 1998 study found that ‘traditional’ government services could be incredibly frustrating – unhappy respondents complained that staff were unhelpful, lacked knowledge and were slow in handling claims.
Citizens’ experiences with paper-based services fared little better: over half of benefits claimants found it difficult to fill in the lengthy forms and needed help to do so. Yet little seems to have been done to tackle this pervasive, paper-centric form of social exclusion – many services, such as claiming for the Employment and Support Allowance, still involve 50+ dense pages whether served online or offline.
These wider aspects of social inclusion won’t be fixed when the focus is confined to one arbitrary service delivery channel (screen, in-person, phone, paper-based, etc.). It requires a holistic approach to the re-engineering and redesign of the organisations, systems, processes and technologies that underpin them. The focus needs to be on fixing the underlying complaints expressed in 1998 that "… existing transactions with government were seen as being complicated and time consuming … respondents described feelings of humiliation and irritation with regard to … dealings with government.”
Tackling social inclusion requires the realignment of the entire life-cycle of our public services around citizens’ needs. CxOs need to mentor their boardroom colleagues on this important topic to ensure it does not become sidetracked into a narrow focus on screen-based service delivery: ‘digital’ provides the opportunity to deliver meaningful, socially-inclusive improvements to the design and operation of our public services – across all of the delivery channels that citizens and businesses use.