Blog Watch No.3: Digital divide; universal credit
My week began at Digital Futures 12, where I was speaking about Channel Shift – the challenge of getting people to use public services online.
Digital Futures 12, organized by Shropshire County Council has been well blogged about by Jon King (self-styled 'militant optimist' working in a UK local authority) as well as many others listed on the event website.
Much of the debate at Digital Futures was about the ‘digital divide’ and whether its existence is a reason to slow up the government-sponsored drive to ‘digital by default’ with its aim of delivering of 80% of all public services online.
Anyone who follows the blog of Helen Milner, Chief Executive of UK Online Centres, will know that her response to the digital divide is to try to close it, by providing appropriate support to get everyone online. “The internet”, she wrote in her blog on 10 September, “can really open up lives, so as many people as possible should be encouraged to use it - and use it more.”
“Building online services that people need to use” she was talking about Universal Credit, of which more later, “is a great way of introducing people to the internet, and helping them to gain skills that will positively impact on other areas of their lives.” In the 21st century, she goes on to say, having digital skills is as essential as reading and numeracy.
Patrick Barwise, emeritus professor at London Business School and chairman of Which? took a similar stance at a UK Online Centres/LSE symposium this week, where he repeated points from his LSE blog earlier this year. A few basic online applications like email, the web and online shopping, he said, could transform the lives of the 8 million or so people in the UK who are not online. This would save them time and money, reduce their isolation, re-engage them in wider society and the economy – and enable them to use online public services. So getting people online is a powerful and cost-effective way of reducing inequality.
That’s the moral case, but the financial one is equally strong says Barwise, arguing that government funding for the work of UK Online Centres and others trying to bridge the digital divide is simply not enough.
The civil servant - a senior policy adviser specialising in Digital Policy - who writes the Bish Bash Blog (views his own, obviously) agrees that successive governments have not been as effective in tackling digital exclusion as they might have been.
Governments have tended to rely on others to tackle digital exclusion, he says, offering small pots of funding support rather than intervening directly. Fine, maybe, when channel choice was available, but if people are required to use an online service, can the government remain non-interventional, he asks.
The digital divide is just one of many concerns being raised about Universal Credit, the Government’s scheme to simplify the benefits system and provide better incentives for welfare claimants to re-enter the jobs market.
Writing in the Guardian’s housing network blog, Jon Land, editor of 24housing magazine, echoed widespread concerns about the impact of Universal Credit that had been raised at the weekend in BBC reports, and followed up with a House of Commons Opposition Day debate on the topic last Tuesday. ‘Safely shrouded from the real world, Iain Duncan Smith and Lord David Freud continue to work on universal credit,’ he said, people were becoming increasingly aware that universal credit is ‘a car-crash waiting to happen.’
Charity for the homeless St Mungos was worried specifically about direct payments – the arrangement under Universal Credit whereby everyone will get money for their rent paid directly to them, rather than straight to the landlord.
Writing in the St Mungo’s blog, Tanya English points out that some claimants will inevitably see a cash windfall as a temptation to binge drink, or leaping to the demands of the drug dealer before those of the landlord. So, without direct payments, some landlords could be left with no other choice but to evict their tenants.
Even more landlords will take the safe option, and avoid housing someone with problems in the first place. With homelessness continuing to rise, she argues, surely this is not a risk worth taking?
But there is support for Universal Credit from some perhaps unexpected quarters, including the Joseph Rowntree foundation blog, where public affairs manager Gordon Hector countered Frank Field’s broadside against UC published in the Guardian earlier in the week.
Hector says that key principles behind UC - making many benefits into one, and making work pay – are good. The key question therefore becomes whether universal credit will actually achieve these principles, justifying its £2bn price tag.
Hector argues that JRF research suggests UC will mean 900,000 or so people would no longer be in relative poverty. Its overall distributional effect, he says, is pro-poor, with the highest gain in disposable income being seen in the bottom income decile. UC also improves on current disincentives for working (even if it does not remove them).
Apart from whether Universal Credit will deliver the intended benefits (no pun intended), there are, inevitably, other questions about whether the IT systems behind it will work.
A key issue that the IT team needs to resolve for an ‘online only’ service, as UC is intended to be, is how to establish that claimants are who they say they are. Asserting an identity on the Internet currently varies from online service to online service. At the lowest level, it may be an email address and at the highest level it can include postal address, credit card number, date of birth and some other details.
To tackle identity problem for Universal Credit, says Alan Mather in his blogpost Making An Identity Market, the DWP is planning to create a market of competing identity providers able to provide ‘portable online identities’. This will mean that in future, being trusted by your bank to do business online could mean that you will also trusted to do the same by government services.
The government wants to change that. DWP are, as Cabinet Office say, "the first cab off the rank" but they will be followed by others (HMRC are discussing their approach with the market and will perhaps issue a procurement later this year or early next year).
The problem is, it's not yet clear how this is going to work, and consequently how attractive a proposition entering the identity market will be to intended suppliers. ‘There is plenty that could still go wrong’ ends the piece, concluding: ‘Fingers crossed it doesn't, this is important stuff.’