With more and more public services moving online, are certain sectors of society being left behind?
It goes without saying, we’re living in a digital world where technology and connected devices are the norm. From the mobile phone permanently attached to our hand to the laptop we use in our 9-5 - most of us are accustomed to (and reliant on) being digitally ‘switched on’ in all areas of our life.
In the workplace especially, we are seeing a huge focus placed on digital technology and digital solutions. And with the Government’s Digital First policy in place, organisations like the Northern Ireland Public Sector have dedicated themselves to Digital Transformation in an effort to improve efficiency, reduce costs, improve reach and provide a better citizen experience. Impressive results are already being realised, with internal processes becoming more streamlined and standardised, and response times speeding up for citizens, which has ultimately led to improving the quality of service provided and a better user experience.
But with the single-mindedness towards a digital first economy, there is the growing realisation that certain members of society are being digitally excluded and missing out on vital services as a result. Let’s think of the single mother who can’t afford a smart phone, tablet or broadband, the visually impaired teenager who requires “special” browser settings, or the 65 year old who is fearful of the internet and completing transactions online.
In particular, it is seniors and those in a low socio-economic bracket, those with particular special needs or minority groups, such as foreign language speakers or refugees who are at risk of becoming digitally disconnected. It is likely that people from these groups are the ones who need public services the most and would benefit enormously from accessing resources and completing transactions and forms online.
To help bring everyone along in the Digital First economy, the Government recently issued a white paper on Digital Inclusion. It outlines the measures to take so that everyone has access to digital solutions and connectivity, as well as the skills to use them as intended. But is this just a pipe dream? With so many factors at play, including web design and usability, socio-economic status and skills development, there are lots to consider and work through.
There are practical ways in which the Government and cross-sector partners are paving the way for a cohesive digital society and shrinking the digital divide. In Northern Ireland, for example, the N.I. Public Sector is running digital campaigns to equip people with basic digital skills to allow them to get online, use email and fill in electronic forms. Technology solutions provider Equiniti is playing their part by making their portfolio of solutions digitally accessible to everyone, and available across multiple devices types, and browsers 24/7. The hope is that more public, private and voluntary organisations will follow suit and better integrate and optimise their online services for everyone who needs them, regardless of circumstance.
It’s clear there are many factors at play preventing the whole of society from embracing and using innovative digital solutions. Overcoming the barriers and obstacles people face will be largely down to improving accessibility for minority and disadvantaged groups and addressing the digital skills gap. Digital inclusion may not be a quick fix but working towards closing the inequality and digital gap will go a long way to creating a stronger and more competitive economy.