DR ROBERTA BERNARDI, UNIVERSITY OF BRISTOL – WRITTEN EVIDENCE (PSR0062)
The digital transformation of public services in the COVID-19 era: bringing back the digital inclusion agenda
Written evidence submitted by Dr Roberta Bernardi, University of Bristol
I am a Lecturer in Management at the University of Bristol. My research expertise focuses on the digital transformation of public services, particularly in healthcare. The main reason for submitting this evidence is to highlight the importance of digital inclusion initiatives for the fair and equitable provision of public services to vulnerable people during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased demand for existing public services online and accelerated the digitalisation of several public services not only within Government departments but also across local authorities. As several Government agencies and local councils have turned to online working, it is likely that the present trend for digitalisation will continue.
2. The push to digitalisation in the COVID-19 era has brought to the surface the deep digital inequalities that still today affect several rural areas and the poorest and most vulnerable communities across the UK. Digital inequalities include poor connectivity and lack of digital skills and have barred the most vulnerable from accessing public services either online or on the phone in the time of greatest need.
3. Addressing these inequalities requires a range of actions, including the extension of broadband in rural areas; higher provision of free Wi-fi in public places; empower libraries and community centres as key providers of connectivity, digital literacy and information services; retain some face-to-face front end services for vulnerable groups in local councils; strengthen partnerships and digital capabilities across the public, charity, and private sectors.
Impact of COVID-19 on the digitalisation of public services
1. Covid-19 has further accelerated the demand for digitised services and reduction in paper-based solutions and face-to-face services. People accessing England’s NHS11 online system had its busiest day ever on 17 March with 950,000 users . NHS shifted to online consultations in a space of a few weeks . NHS app to order repeat prescriptions grew by 111% in March . In two weeks of lockdown number of court cases as video calls rose by 800 per cent 1. Vulnerable people were offered to register for support via the extremely vulnerable service register of Gov.UK.
2. Local councils have also transferred their services online. Adur & Worthing Councils have set up a community support platform where people can request for support, such as help with food, financial guidance, mental health support and help with accessing digital technology . Platforms like this do not only allow for coordination of community support and voluntary services, but they are a valuable source of community intelligence to plan for services to the most vulnerable groups. Engaging with the public through social media has also become crucial to explain lockdown and social distancing measures as in Doncaster council or communicate simple recipe ideas or tips for wellbeing as set by the example of Welwyn Hatfild council. Local councils have also partnered with traders who have adapted their business model to offer home deliveries in their communities either online or through the phone. Dover District Council regularly updates its website with a list of businesses that offer this service .
3. After lockdown, many public administrations shifted to remote working 1. Croydon City Council fast-tracked the roll-out of Microsoft Teams to 4,000 staff and built new systems for business grants and council tax relief 3. While fast-paced digitalisation at Croydon City Council sets an example for other local authorities, vulnerable citizens who do not have Internet connection risk being excluded from essential services . As COVID-19 may set a trend for the digitalisation of services and remote working, serious questions remain about the potential exclusion of the digital have-nots from front-line services.
Widening inequalities - what does the move of public services online mean for the most vulnerable?
4. The push to digitalisation in the COVID-19 era has brought to the surface the deep digital inequalities that still today affect several rural areas and the poorest and most vulnerable communities across the UK. The ONS 2019 survey of Internet users estimates that 4.8 million of the UK population have either never used the Internet or did not use it for over the past three months . Lack of Internet access at home affects 1.9 million household, according to the Guardian . While major UK’s Internet providers have lifted data caps on fixed-line broadband, this has been of no help for the tens of millions of people who rely on pay-as-you-go services to make phone calls or access healthcare, education, and benefits online 8. While vulnerable people are the ones who are most in need for support during the pandemic, they are also those most at risk of being left out of the digital revolution of public services. A survey by the Department of Work and Pension estimates that, in 2017, 56% of adult Internet non-users were disabled . Households living on a very limited budget have been forced to choose between food and data. Several elderly people have been unable to go online to get on council shielding lists, find out where food banks are, call their GP or get their medication 8.
5. Digital inequality is not only about lack of access to the Internet, but it is also about being able to use it. According to the 2020 Lloyds consumer Digital Index, 16% of UK adults (9m people) lack the essential digital skills needed to perform basic tasks while 9% (4.7m people) cannot do any tasks at all . After lockdown measures being put in place, many public places offering free Internet access such as cafés and public libraries had to close their premises. According to a survey by the Oxford Internet Institute, nearly 70 percent of people in Britain use public Wi-fi and nearly 20 percent access the Internet in libraries . Public access points to the Internet are not just vital for Internet connectivity. Community centres and libraries, for example, offer digital literacy, support and information services , which help people with limited digital skills access essential services such as healthcare, housing, benefits, and community support services 11. Thus, not bringing these places back to function in a COVID-secure way will prevent several people from accessing essential services online.
6. Despite the Government plans to roll out fast broadband and 5G across the country, digital inequalities between rural and urban areas persist with 6.6% of households still lacking a decent Internet connection 8. This has severely hampered local council’s efforts to ramp up the digital transformation of their services and operations. Council leaders and staff working from home could not properly run their day-to-day activities as they were often unable to attend meetings online . A recent report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee  noted that poor connectivity severely limited rural communities’ access to essential public services, including across healthcare and social services, education, legal services, farm payments, and tax services. With many government’s operations moving online following the pandemic, it is likely that the urban-rural digital divide in public services access will be exacerbated leaving several rural communities lagging behind.
The Government Response
7. The Government has launched a series of initiatives to tackle digital inclusion during the pandemic. These include the campaign Devicesnotnow , which asks businesses to donate devices, SIMs, and mobile hotspots. The Government has also struck major deals with UK mobile and broadband companies, who, in addition to removing all data allowance caps on fixed-line broadband, they have also agreed to offer mobile and landline packages and data boosts at reduced prices. In addition, they have ensured that customers who are vulnerable or self-isolating are provided with alternative methods of communication if their broadband or landline does not work . The Universal Service Obligation (USO) has also come into effect, providing people with the right to request an affordable and decent broadband connection (of at least 10 mbps) 11. As we adjust to the ‘new normal’ in the COVID-19 era, more comprehensive measures are needed in order to reduce the digital exclusion of millions of people in the UK from public services.
Recommendations for Action
Extend broadband in rural areas
8. Poor connectivity is hampering the digital transformation and delivery of public services in several rural localities. Government’s plans to deliver broadband into every UK household by 2025 are thus even more pressing. These can enable local authorities to serve their communities remotely while ensuring the safety of staff and citizens.
Free Wi-fi in public spaces and discounted mobile phone plans for vulnerable groups
9. Further action is needed to boost connectivity and allow vulnerable and less advantage groups to access public services either online or through their phones. Action may target the extension of free Wi-fi connection to spaces open to the public such as libraries, hospitals, parks, train, stations, and bus terminals. As restrictions are currently being eased and we move towards the ‘new normal’, it is important that discounted rates on mobile phone plans for vulnerable groups are not phased out. Modelled on the discounted reduced TV license fee, future deals with mobile service providers should maintain or even increase reductions on mobile phone plans for vulnerable groups and those who need shielding.
Public spaces for Internet access and digital literacy
10. Public spaces such as libraries and community centres are a fundamental point of access to digital public services for people who have limited connectivity or digital skills. Adequate measures and funding are needed to ensure that these places can continue delivering the digital literacy and other support services that vulnerable people need to access public services online in all safety. This means making sure that these facilities are supported in making their premises COVID-secure (e.g. through making available PPE, plastic screens for desks and counters).
Rebalance ‘digital by default’ with inclusivity
11. The digital-by-default pillar of the UK Digital Strategy (2017) has certainly played an important role in driving digital transformation of many public services. Thanks to it, by the time COVID-19 turned into a pandemic and forced us to stay at home, several public services were already available online. Yet, a stringent application of digital-by-default is also responsible for the exclusion of vulnerable groups from public services which were entirely made digital (see Universal Credit claim system) . While it is unlikely that the ease of the restrictions will bring us to anywhere near the level of face-to-face services we were used to before the pandemic, it is important to ensure a fair provision of front-line desk services targeting the most vulnerable and less digitally capable, especially within local authorities. Like in the case of libraries, sufficient funding should be made available to make sure that local authorities can make their premises COVID-secure both for their staff and customers.
The importance of partnerships and enhanced digital capabilities across sectors
12. Partnerships between local authorities and other government services with stakeholders from the charity and private sectors have been one of the greatest achievements in public service deliveries 1. Voluntary organisations were in the front-line in supporting people in self-isolation and who needed shielding and in spotting those who were most in need of making phone calls or accessing the Internet. Both voluntary and private sector organisations represent a resource to widen digital inclusion of vulnerable people in the COVID-19 area. The Government’s action to strengthen the digital capacity of public sector organisations should be extended to charity and business sector organisations operating within the framework of a public service collaborative.
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