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Digital inclusion key to progression of online government, says UK online centres

UK online centres today welcomed the publication of the National Audit Office (NAO) report into Government on the internet, but stressed action on digital inclusion must step up if progress in delivering information and services online is to continue.

Helen Milner, Managing Director of UK online centres said: “It’s great to see this report recommending that government organisations have a clear strategy for providing online services which work for internet novices as well as internet experts. However, more action is needed for the 39% of the population who are still digitally excluded.

“The fact is that those people without the knowledge, skills or motivation to use the internet are likely to be the very people with most need to use government services. Our research shows three quarters of socially excluded people are also digitally excluded – those out of work, in poor health, with low qualifications, living alone or living in social housing. It’s these people that must be targeted by government so they get the same information and benefits available to ‘online’ citizens.”

UK online centres’ message is that in rationalising and improving services according to the NAO’s recommendations, government must make sure they target not just existing users or even just the ‘low-hanging fruit’ – those who are relatively easy to convert to online channels. They’re calling for renewed efforts to reach the really hard-to-reach.

Helen continues: “I want to see government departments focussing on how to make online services work for the most deeply excluded. By connecting people to technology and the skills to use it, we’re connecting them not just to the DVLA to get a new tax disc, but to better paid jobs, instant information, new forms of communication and social interaction, community infrastructures, consumer power and convenience.

“The benefits of digital inclusion go way beyond transformational government to wider social and economic gains. For some time at UK online centres we’ve been encouraging MPs and government departments to move digital inclusion up the political agenda. It may never make the headlines the way education, health, employment and crime do, but arguably it has an underlying impact on all of these areas and more.

“The worrying truth for government is that internet take-up has reached a plateau, with only marginally more people online now than in 2004. Indeed, the NAO report itself says that in 2005 only 24% of the population looked up government information online. To get more people using the internet and using government services, more must be done.

“I’m delighted to see the NAO report recognise the work UK online centres are already doing in the areas and with the people government most needs to reach - recruiting and supporting digitally excluded citizens to communicate and transact with online government services. Community based intermediaries will be key in bridging the gap between citizen and state, and between the haves and have-nots of ICT.

“I look forward to working with the new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) to ensure the network can effectively build on this work, and continue to support both government services and excluded people to use them effectively. The network is a ready-made test-bed and delivery-arm for government, and has the potential to do so much more to make online services work on the ground.

“I hope the Public Accounts Committee's assessment of this report will open up debate and result in real leadership of digital inclusion issues - across government and across the private and third sectors. It’s only by pooling cross-sector resource and expertise that we can now affect the level and pace of change necessary to achieve digital inclusion. If we make that leap together, we have the opportunity to ensure transformational government transforms services for as many people as possible.”

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website building and web hosting when DHTML and frames were en vogue and started writing about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium. Following an eight-year stint at where he discovered the joys of global tech-fests, Désiré now heads up TechRadar Pro. Previously he was a freelance technology journalist at Incisive Media, Breakthrough Publishing and Vnunet, and Business Magazine. He also launched and hosted the first Tech Radio Show on Radio Plus.