Digital transformation in government: moving towards 100% digital

Mike Bracken, former Executive Director Digital for the UK Government, on a stage with the word 'Onwards' in the background.

Mike Bracken, former Executive Director Digital for the UK Government, speaking about  ‘The digital transformation of the UK Government ”  Image by gdsteam via Creative Commons

By Steven McGinty

On the 1st March, Companies House, the agency responsible for the UK’s register of companies, announced their intention to become a 100% digital organisation by the end of 2018/19. Over 80% of companies already submit their documents digitally, but the agency is keen to move this figure as close to 100% as possible, highlighting the cost savings and improved levels of service.

However, Companies House is not alone in its digital ambitions. ‘Digital by default’, the idea that digital services should be the most convenient option for people, has been a key policy aim of the UK government.

Digital Transformation programme

In January 2013, the government introduced its first significant venture into digital transformation. The programme, which involved the Government Digital Service (GDS) – the agency responsible for digital transformation – and eight government departments, set out to transform 25 major services in 400 days, with the aim of developing services that were simpler, clearer and faster to use.

By the end of the programme, in March 2015, twenty exemplar projects had been completed, including services as varied as enabling people to register to vote, making a claim for the Carer’s Allowance, and booking a prison visit.

“Death of the self-assessment tax return”

In the March 2015 Budget, the Chancellor, George Osborne, announced a major IT project, which he described as “a revolutionary simplification of tax collection”. At the time, 12 million people were completing self-assessment tax forms every year. But by early 2016 the government expected that five million small businesses and the first ten million individuals would have personalised digital tax accounts, bringing together all their tax details. By 2020, it’s expected that over 50 million individuals and small business will benefit from personalised digital tax accounts.

Although the project has generally been praised, Jamie Morrison, private client partner at HW Fisher & Company, has warned that – apart from the most straightforward cases – automation won’t improve the self-assessment experience. Similarly, Mark Abbs, a tax partner at London-based chartered accountant Blick Rothenberg LLP, has suggested that the five-year time frame might be too ‘ambitious’.

Investment in digital transformation

As part of the 2015 November Spending Review, George Osborne provided £1.8 billion over four years to support digital transformation initiatives.  This included supporting the move towards digital tax accounts, mentioned above, and the introduction of a simple payment mechanism for all central government services.

In addition to this funding, UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) – which works with businesses to ensure their success in international markets – received £24 million to simplify their online services and ensure they can interact effectively with other government services.

More surprisingly, the GDS was given a budget of £450 million over four years – an increase on its previous £58 million a year. This news was particularly positive for those connected with the GDS, as there was concern that their budget (and influence) would be greatly reduced.

Challenges of digital transformation

The biggest challenge to the goal of ‘100% digital’ is that not everyone is able to access digital services (and to a lesser degree those who have access but need support). In 2015, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) found that 14% of households in Great Britain had no internet access, with 31% reporting that this was due to a lack of skills. Other factors for lack of access included the cost of technology (14%) and the cost of accessing the internet (12%).

Elizabeth Rust, in a 2014 Guardian article, highlighted that often those who are digitally excluded need to access government services the most. She offered the example of a jobseeker who lost his Jobseeker’s Allowance because he struggled to access the internet to apply for jobs, particularly as limited access was available at his local library.

This highlights the challenge of achieving ‘100% digital’, and is why although HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) are now moving towards digital tax accounts, there will still be an option to complete self-assessment returns in the traditional way.

In the 2016 March Budget, George Osborne also provided £71 million of extra funding to support the digital tax roll-out. These additional resources will be used to extend the opening hours of customer service offices that deal with online enquiries and tax credits.  These improved services should be in place by 2017, enabling greater levels of support for users of digital tax records.


Digital transformation provides a major opportunity for improving government services and reducing costs. It’s not a case however of simply replicating existing customer journeys within an online environment. It requires organisations to put people at the heart of their delivery approach. And in turn, this requires significant internal challenge and change.

The ambition for digital transformation will only succeed if the government invests in digital skills, provides services that encourage people to use them, and supports individuals as they adapt to new digital services.

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eGov Singapore: award winning leader in digital government

By Steven McGinty

“Singapore leads in all dimensions of digital readiness and scores high in economic competitiveness, citizen engagement as well as public sector productivity.”

These are the words of Ng Wee Wei, Managing Director (Health & Public Service) at Accenture, in Singapore. He made this statement on the day Singapore was ranked number one for digital government, in a comparative study carried out by Accenture.

However, this is just one of the many accolades won by Singapore. Other notable successes have included:

In my latest article on digital government around the world, we’ll take a look at how this island city state has become a global leader and what can be learned from their experience.

E-government policy development

In the 1970s the Singapore government realised that they were unable to compete with the larger labour-intensive economies. As a result, they identified ICT as a way of improving economic performance, particularly through increasing labour productivity, making processes leaner and more efficient, and delivering better services to customers.

In 1982, the government launched the Civil Service Computerization Program (CSCP). The programme’s main objective was to enhance public administration through the effective use of ICT. This involved developing new business processes, automating work functions and reducing paperwork for greater internal operational efficiencies. In essence, it provided the foundation for subsequent e-services.

Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s the government started to develop the programme. For instance, the National Information Technology Plan (NITP) was introduced to support cross agency collaboration. This led to the creation of “TradeNet”, an application that enabled exchange of documents between the private sector and various government agencies.

As Singapore entered the new millennium, the e-Government Action Plan (2000-2003) (eGAP 1) was launched. This was the first of what the government now calls the ‘eGov masterplans’.  It set out the aim that:

All government services that can be delivered electronically shall be delivered through electronic means”.

The second e-Government Action Plan (2003-2006) emphasised improving the customer experience, connecting citizens with each other and fostering collaboration between government agencies.

The third, iGov2010 Masterplan (2006-2010), had a strong focus on integrating government services, making sure that processes cut across agencies. In addition, increasing the e-engagement of citizens was also a key objective, particularly in fostering greater bonds within different communities, such as young people.

Most recently, the government introduced the eGov2015 Masterplan (2011-2015), which outlined the vision of collaboration between the government, the private sector and the people through digital technologies. There was also a recognition that the government should act as a platform provider to encourage greater co-creation of new e-services.

Key features of eGov Singapore

  • SingPass

Singpass (Singapore Personal Access) was introduced in March 2003 and enables citizens access to government e-services, from over 60 government agencies via a single platform. In total, there are 3.3 million registered users, with transactions increasing from 4.5 million in 2003 to 57 million in 2013. The system provides a high level of security for users, as well as removing the need for agencies to develop and administer their own.

In July 2015, an Enhanced SingPass was introduced. It included improvements such as the option to customise the SingPass ID, mobile-friendly features, and stronger security capabilities. However, the updates proved to be so popular that on their initial release the website was temporarily inaccessible due to high traffic.

  • was launched in June 2011 and is Singapore’s first stop portal for publicly available government data, as well as applications developed using government data.  The portal has increased to over 8,700 datasets (covering a range of themes, from business and the economy to housing and urban planning), with contributions coming from over 60 government agencies.

The government has introduced schemes such as ideas4apps Challenge and Harnessing Data for Value Creation Call-for-Collaboration (CFC) to encourage the creative use of government data. One example from the portal’s showcase is FixMyStreet, an app which allows citizens to report, view or discuss issues with public facilities, such as litter and broken lifts.

  • eCitizen

eCitizen was introduced in 1999 and is the first-stop portal for government information and services. When the portal was first introduced it pioneered the concept of cross-agency, citizen-centric government services, where users transact with ‘one government’ (the ability to access several government services via the one website).

In 2013, the eCitizen portal was recognised for “Outstanding Achievement” in the Government category of the Interactive Media Awards. It beat 137 other nominees to the award, which evaluates entries based on: design; content; feature; functionality; usability; and standards compliance. Since the portal’s redesign in 2012, there has been a 65% increase in visitors, with significant improvement in the success rates of searches (up to three times).

 What key lessons can countries learn from Singapore?

In the book, National Strategies to Harness Information Technology: Seeking Transformation in Singapore, Finland, the Philippines, and South Africa, Jeannie Chua outlines the key lessons that other countries can take from the Singaporean experience. This includes:

  • Stable political leadership

Singapore has had the same political party in charge of its Cabinet since 1959. This high level of political stability is rare, unlikely to occur in most countries and not necessarily desirable for democracy. However, it does highlight the importance of some level of continuity for progressing a digital agenda, whether that’s within the same government or across different government administrations.

  • Industry collaboration – getting the private sector to do more

The use of government intervention to create opportunities for the private sector and providing effective working partnerships has been very successful in Singapore. This ‘catalyst’ role has encouraged innovation and supported the creation of a successful ICT industry.

  • The willingness to innovate and take risks

Singapore’s willingness to adopt technologies at an early stage has proved to be a success.  For instance, the National Library of Singapore adopted RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology, the use of radio waves to automatically identify people or objects, even though it was relatively untested at the time.

 Final thoughts

Singapore has been successful at creating a strong foundation for e-government and is deserving of all its accolades. The success has been built on a combination of factors including political willingness and economic policies. However, what has also been important is the country’s ability to learn from each stage in its development.

As the country moves forward, key issues such as cybercrime and privacy concerns will have to be addressed. In 2014, there was a security breach involving 1,560 Singpass accounts. A year later, the government introduced a new central government agency for cybersecurity operations. It’s hoped that this central agency will be able to bolster the country’s critical ICT infrastructure.

It’s these measures, and its ability to act swiftly, that will hold Singapore in good stead for the future. This is maybe the real lesson for those looking to emulate Singapore’s e-government success.

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Digital Agenda Norway (DAN): international digital leader but still pushing forward

Split Norwegian flag flying in the wind

Image courtesy of Pixabay via Creative Commons.

By Steven McGinty

Continuing my series on digital government best practice, I will be looking at the success of Norway and what they hope to achieve through their Digital Agenda for Norway (DAN) strategy.

Norway is already a leader in “digital government”, ranking second only behind Singapore in a study carried out by Accenture on implementation progress and citizen satisfaction. The Norwegian State Secretary, Paul Chaffey, suggests that this success has been built on a foundation of a population of tech savvy Norwegians, with a history of being at the forefront of cutting edge technology.

For instance, in 1973 Norway became the first country to connect to the US’ ARPANET, which was the military predecessor to the Internet. And more recently, maritime and off-shore technology developments in Norway have become of global importance. In particular, the use of Big Data modelling plays a significant role in finding new oil fields.

Egovernment policy development

In 2000, the government presented the eNorway action plan, a set of ICT initiatives designed to support the development of the ‘knowledge society’ and improve the lives of the people of Norway. The plan consisted of descriptions of the individual ICT initiatives of ministries, as well as common frameworks to support joint initiatives.

This soon evolved into eNorway 2005, which had the main goal of developing a set of principles for ICT initiatives. From this, the government set out three primary targets for its ICT policy:

  • Creating value in industry;
  • Efficiency and quality in the public sector;
  • Involvement and identity.

Then, the government introduced eNorway2009, a strategy that would take Norway a ‘digital leap’ forward. It argued that the public sector had to be viewed as one unit, if digital progress was to be made. Therefore, the new strategy focused on the use of multi-disciplinary initiatives and projects. There was also a recognition of the need for cooperation between all sectors and levels of the public sector, as well as the private sector.

In 2012, the government also published a report on the digitisation of the public sector. It outlined the government’s key policy objectives for their digitisation programme – keeping Norway at the forefront internationally in terms of providing digital public services to its citizens
and businesses.

Major successes

  •  ID-Porten

A major development has been the implementation of the hub, ID-Porten, which verifies citizens via electronic IDs (eID).  It allows citizens to securely login to government digital services via a single login portal. There is also a common technical platform (ID Gateway), which allows citizens to login to services using four different eIDs: MiniID; BankID; Buypass; and Comfides.

BankID, Buypass, and Comfides all provide access to a high level of security (level 4). These IDs are required when accessing personal data and only issued to individuals who appear in person. However, MiniID provides only a medium-high security level (level 3) and pins codes can be sent via mail or through SMS. This is the most common eID (used by almost 2.7 million citizens) and provides access to digital services provided by the tax services and the Norwegian State Educational Loan Fund.


In 2003, Altinn was launched to provide a single web portal for public reporting. This was driven by the amount of time Norwegian businesses were spending on statutory reporting. To resolve this problem, the three large public agencies in Norway – the Norwegian Tax Administration, Statistics Norway and the Bronnoysund Register Centre – started Altinn.

However, the project has now moved beyond that of public reporting. Now it’s responsible for providing an array of electronic forms (over 700) and digital services, as well as providing information for businesses.

The most used service by citizens is the completion of tax returns online. In 2009, more than 440,000 businesses chose to do their statutory reporting through Altinn.


This is the main information portal for the Norwegian government. It has a user friendly design and in many ways is similar to the UK Government’s website GOV.UK.

Digital Agenda for Norway (DAN)

In 2013, the Norwegian government published the white paper on the Digital Agenda for Norway (DAN).  The strategy is linked to the Digital Agenda for Europe, and is also related to the Europe 2020 strategy.

The DAN explains that the government’s primary goal is that:

Norwegian society take full advantage of the value creation and innovation opportunities that ICT and the internet offer.”

This has been the philosophy from the early stages of Norway’s digital development.

The DAN highlights that greater digitisation is inevitable but notes that it will be important to identify areas with the greatest potential for development.

In terms of the public sector, the DAN identifies a number of areas for development:

  • Public sector information – increasing the accessibility and reuse of public sector information.
  • Digital services for citizens – improving digital registration for property rights and creating a paperless justice sector.
  • Commons technical solutions – the development of digital mailboxes for citizens and businesses, the use of digital document exchange, and the creation of common registers to support the public sector.
  • Organising and coordinating for more efficient use of resources.
  • Adapting laws and regulations to a digital public sector – requiring digital communication to be the standard method of communication for the public sector.

Looking to the future?

Norway has earned their reputation as a ‘digital leader’. Over the years, the government has set out a series of clear policies to support the transition to the digital age. Although not perfect, significant improvements have been made. For instance, 93% of Norwegian households now have access to the internet; this figure was only 55% in 2003.

The new DAN presents Norway with an opportunity to continue the success of recent policy initiatives. And on recent evidence, this is a clear possibility.

However, with other countries looking to improve their performance in digital government, it will be interesting to see if they will overtake Norway in international comparisons or if Norway’s sustained focus will pay off and enable them to be the world’s number one in terms of using digital services to increase citizen engagement and improve service delivery.

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IDOX specialises in election services, with Idox Elections offering end-to-end solutions for electoral management systems. Idox was awarded a number of contracts to support the Norwegian municipal and county elections held in September 2015. This follows Idox’s success in delivering similar election services during the Norwegian General Election of 2013.

The Government Digital Service: successes, turmoil, and the focus for the future

By Steven McGinty

In April 2011, the Government Digital Service (GDS) was launched to lead the digital transformation of government. The focus was on making public services digital by default (a policy which envisions most public services being delivered online), and simpler, clearer and faster to use.

Their first major project was the development of GOV.UK. It was to act as the primary source for UK government data and would replace a number of existing websites, including DirectGov. Overall, GOV.UK has been viewed as a GDS success story.

In the latest GDS progress report, it was highlighted that:

  • Over 300 agency and arm’s length bodies’ (ALB) websites had been transitioned over to GOV.UK by the end of 2014;
  • The GOV.UK website averaged 12 million weekly unique visitors in the first quarter of 2015 (25th most used website in the UK);
  • The GOV.UK website saw 13.6 million unique visitors and 21.2 million visits in the last week of January 2015 (this was the likely the result of the 31st January Self-Assessment tax return deadline).

However, GOV.UK has not been without its critics. In February, the Register revealed documents that said that the GDS knew that GOV.UK was:

destroying useful online services and replacing them with trendy webpages bereft of useful information

One noted failure was the transition of the Home Office visa and immigration site to GOV.UK. According to their own analysis, the GDS did not have a good enough understanding of the users’ needs.

GDS in turmoil?

At the beginning of August 2015, Executive Director of the GDS Mike Bracken announced he was leaving. In an interview, Mike Bracken explained that he was leaving due to the “stresses and strains” of the role. The current GDS Chief Operating Officer Stephen Foreshew-Cain will move up and replace him.

There have also been a number of other senior GDS leaders departing. These include:

  • Deputy Director Tom Loosemore
  • Director of Strategy Russell Davies
  • Director of Design Ben Terrett
  • Head of User Research Leisa Reichelt
  • Transformation Programme Director of the Government Digital Service Michael Beaven.

These changes have led to speculation about the future of the GDS. Last financial year, the service had a budget of £58 million and approximately 700 members of staff. Computerworld have suggested that the GDS could undergo substantial cuts as part of the HM Treasury’s spending review.  If so, the impact could fundamentally change the GDS’ role.

The future

In August, Matt Hancock MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office, reiterated his support for the GDS. He said:

“the work that GDS is doing, and the vision of Government as a Platform, is changing the core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes.”

The Minister then went on to emphasise that the GDS has extremely talented people and has a lot more to contribute in the future.

In addition, Eddie Copeland, Head of Technology Policy at the Policy Exchange has outlined 5 points of focus for the ‘next phase’ of the GDS. These include:

  • Be guardian of the rules – the government should lead the way in defining the standards of how front-end government IT should work, although should not be concerned about who provides it, whether that’s public or private sector.
  • Focus on the user / citizen experience – the government should focus on providing a positive customer experience and creating online transactions that are needed.
  • Lead on open standards for data – the use of open standards would reduce the technical barriers to sharing information between different systems.
  • Be an informed customer – failed IT projects were often the fault of the government, therefore the government needs to become a smarter, more demanding customer.
  • Scale best practice – all departments should learn from the successes of the GDS, and try to implement innovative solutions where possible.

 Final thoughts

It’s likely that the GDS will play an important role in the continued digital transformation of government services. However, some – including Eddie Copeland – believe that the GDS will become a smaller organisation.  As a result, there may be opportunities for the private sector to get involved in supporting the digital transformation, particularly if they can provide a solid business case.

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e-Estonia: leading the way on digital government

By Steven McGinty

 “We should talk about a digital-embracing government, not e-government”

These are the words of Andres Kütt, system architect and adviser to the Estonian Information Security Authority. By this he means that the term ‘e-government’ implies a separation between digital and government. So, instead he advocates the term ‘digital-embracing government’ as it highlights that digital should be embedded within all aspects of governance.

Why does the Estonian view matter?

In Estonia, digital has become the norm, and most government services can now be completed online. They have managed to find a way of creating partnerships between the government, a very proactive ICT sector and the citizens of Estonia. As a result, the country of just 1.3 million people has become a leader in digital government.

The ‘core’ of the Estonian model 

  • Electronic ID cards

Key to the Estonian approach is the use of an electronic ID card. As of 2012, more than 1.1 million people have ID cards. The Estonian population have been described as ‘tech savvy’ and ‘pragmatic’. This could be the reason ID cards have been successful there, whereas in the UK concerns about threats to privacy have always led to their rejection.

The ID card acts as both an identity document and, within the European Union, a travel document. It provides a way to verify citizens using online services. The card is secure, and is used for activities such as internet banking, participating in e-elections, and buying public transportation tickets. Mobile phones can also act as an ID card, allowing citizens to confirm their identity online.

  • Population Database

The Estonian government has a national register (called the Population Database).  This provides a single unique identifier for all citizens and residents in Estonia. Similarly to the use of ID cards, these forms of large scale database are unlikely to be accepted by the British public. For instance, concerns were raised when it was suggested that a Scotland-wide ID database, which would have included records from 120 public bodies, could be introduced.

Estonian digital government services

  • e-Elections

Since 2005, Estonians have been able to participate in e-elections using their ID card or their mobile ID. Once a voter’s identity has been verified, the connecting digital signature is separated from the vote. This allows the vote to be anonymous.

In the 2011 Parliamentary elections, 140, 846 people voted online, representing 24% of the eligible voting population. Recent elections have also shown that online voting has had a positive effect on voter turnout.

However, security concerns have been raised over Estonia’s voting system. Researchers from security firm SafelyLocked have suggested that the software has insufficient security safeguards to protect it from hackers.

  • e-Health record

As of January 2010, Estonia’s citizens have been given access to their medical records via a medical information system. It contains information such as diagnoses and doctor’s visits and is accessed using the ID card.

What could the UK learn from Estonia?

In a recent presentation, Andres Kütt was the first person to admit that you can’t simply take the Estonian approach and implement it into another country. However, he does suggest that methodologies used by Estonia can be adopted by other countries to help them come to their own digital solution. There are also wider lessons that can be drawn from the Estonian experience.

In the UK, the Government Digital Service (GDS) have an ongoing arrangement with the Estonian government – a Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2013 committed the two countries to working together to advance digital public services. The GDS highlights that a lot of Estonia’s success comes from the fact that they started with no pre-existing infrastructure. This means that they were able to avoid legacy problems, such as the challenge of integrating older and newer systems.

However, Pete Herlihy of the GDS, reported that on a visit to Estonia he realised that:

  • The government needs to publish details of the data it holds for each of their systems
  • The government needs to publish an agreed set of open data and messaging standards and protocols, to allow easier communication between systems.

Final thoughts

The eventual solution for the UK will have to be different to that of Estonia. Yet it’s clear that when government, the private sector and citizens come together, it is possible to create a society that is digitally connected.

Here are just a few final facts about the success of Estonia.

  • 98% of banking transactions in Estonia are conducted through the internet
  • In 2013, over 95% of income tax declarations were processed through the e-Tax Board
  • Cabinet meetings have become paperless sessions using a web-based document system.

Further reading

IDOX is a market-leading developer and provider of a broad range of software solutions for UK and international public sector organisations – especially local government. These solutions are designed to help clients comply with regulatory requirements, as well as enable online delivery of public services.

What’s happening to make big data use a reality in health and social care?

data-stream-shutterstock_croppedBy Steven McGinty

At the beginning of the year, NHS Director Tim Kelsey described the adoption of new technologies in the NHS as a ‘moral obligation’. He argued that the gaps in knowledge are so wide and so dangerous that they were putting lives at stake.  It’s therefore no surprise that the UK Government, the NHS, and local governments have all been looking at ways to better understand the health and social care environment.

The effective use of ‘big data’ techniques is said to be key to this understanding. Big data has many definitions but industry analysts Gartner define it as:

“high-volume, high-velocity and high-variety information assets that demand cost-effective, innovative forms of information processing for enhanced insight and decision making”

However, if health and social care is to make better use of its data, it’s important that an effective infrastructure is in place. As a result, changes have been made to legislation and a number of initiatives introduced.

Why is it important to know about big data in health and social care?

The effective use of data in health and social care is a key policy aim of the current government (and will most likely continue under future governments).  The changes that have been made so far have had a significant impact on the policies and practices of health and social care organisations. The vast majority focus on information sharing, in particular how organisations share data and who they share data with.

What changes have been made to support big data?

This was the most ambitious programme introduced by NHS England. It was developed by the Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) and set out to link the medical records of GP practices with hospitals at a national level. It was expected that datasets from GPs’ records and hospital records would be linked using an identifier such as an NHS number or a person’s date of birth. However, due to concerns raised by the public, particularly in regards to privacy, the programme was delayed. The programme has now resumed but new safeguards have been introduced, such as the commissioning of an advisory board and the ‘opt out’ provision, where patients can opt out from having their data used for anything other than their direct care.

The Health and Social Care Act 2012 and the Care Act 2014

The Acts have both introduced provisions that impact on data. For instance, the Health and Social Care Act enshrines in law the ability of the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) to collect and process confidential personal data. In addition, the Care Act clarifies the position of the Health and Social Care Act by ensuring that the HSCIC doesn’t distribute data unless it’s part of the provision of health and social care or the promotion of health.

Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing

This initiative came from the ‘Improving Information Sharing and Management (IISaM) project’, a joint initiative between Bradford Metropolitan District Council, Leicestershire County Council and the 10 local authorities in Greater Manchester. The centre has been set up to help understand the barriers to information sharing and influence national policy. They hope to achieve these goals through the use of case studies, blogs, the development of toolkits, and any other forms of shared learning. The centre has already published some interesting case studies including the Hampshire Health Record (HHR) and Leicestershire County Council’s Children and Young People’s Service (CYPS) approach to communicating how they deal with data.

These are just some of the steps that have been taken to make sure 2015 is the year of big data. However, if real progress is to be made it’s going to require more than top down leadership and headline grabbing statements. It’s going to require all health and social care organisations to take responsibility and work through their barriers to information sharing.

Further reading

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The Carnegie Trust and the Wheatley Group: showing us how we can tackle digital exclusion

By Steven McGinty

As the government pushes towards ‘digital by default’, a policy which envisions most public services being delivered online, it’s worth remembering that 20% of the UK population still lack basic internet skills. Groups such as Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) have raised concerns that ‘digital by default’ could significantly impact on vulnerable and marginalised communities, particularly those claiming welfare benefits. However, if every citizen had basic digital skills and could use online government services, it could save the public purse between £1.7 and £1.8 billion annually.

So, which groups are the most digitally excluded?

According to the UK Government’s digital inclusion strategy, digital exclusion occurs among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups in society. These include:

  • those living in social housing (approximately 37% of those digitally-excluded live in social housing);
  • those on low incomes (44% of people without basic digital skills are either on low wages or are unemployed);
  • those with disabilities (54% of people who have never been online have disabilities);
  • older people (69% of over 55’s are without basic digital skills);
  • young people (only 27% of young people who don’t have access to the internet are in full-time employment).

What are the main barriers to using online services?

In 2013, the Carnegie Trust carried out research into internet access in Glasgow. The findings suggest that there are three common reasons why people never go online:

  • the comfort of doing things offline (34% of people cited their preference for speaking to people on the telephone, or in person, as the reason they don’t go online);
  • a fear of digital technology and the internet ( 28% were worried about issues such as using technology and staying safe online);
  • the costs involved (20% of people highlighted pressures on incomes and the cost of internet connections).

What are the main drivers for people going online?

More recently, the Carnegie Trust carried out a new piece of research, replicating their Glasgow study in two new locations: Dumfries and Kirkcaldy. The study investigated the main reasons people choose to go online. The findings show that:

  • 56% of people went online to find information of interest to them;
  • 48% went online to keep in touch with friends and family;
  • 44% thought it would be an interesting thing to do;
  • 44% had to go online as part of their work.

 How can we encourage people to go online?

Both Carnegie Trust studies show that each individual’s journey to digital inclusion is different and that a ‘personal hook’ or motivation, such as the opportunity to communicate with family members abroad, is an important tool for encouraging digital participation.

Additionally, they also show that friends and family are an important source of help when people are taking their first steps online. For instance, the case studies in Dumfries and Kirkcaldy highlight that people would appreciate help from ‘trusted intermediaries’ or local groups.  Therefore, it’s important that digital participation initiatives make use of existing communities’ networks and tap into the support available from friends and families.

Wheatley Group

The Wheatley Group, which includes Scotland’s largest social landlord, the Glasgow Housing Association (GHA), has been heavily involved in addressing digital exclusion. They have developed a digital strategy to help social tenants access the internet and are committed to proving free or low cost internet access (maximum of £5 per month).

The Group has also been involved in two pilot projects: one which provides technology to 12 low-rise homes, and the Digital Demonstrator project, which tests the feasibility of low-cost broadband in multi-storey blocks. The pilot projects highlighted two important lessons:

  1. the role of the local Housing Officer was key for engaging with tenants
  2. it was important that communities and neighbours learned together.

In an ideal world, every citizen would be digitally literate, and be able to interact with government online. However, this is not the reality. The work carried out by the Carnegie Trust and the Wheatley Group provides a solid basis for developing digital initiatives and ensuring that citizens and communities are not left out.

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