Digital Government services can save money, but they must also support digital illiterates, says Labour’s Chi Onwurah
Government services are failing the poor and digitally illiterate, while initiatives also fail to secure personal privacy against the private sector, says Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Office Minister, Chi Onwurah.
A former hardware and software developer, Ms Onwurah is helping lead Labour’s Digital Government Review which aims to set the party’s aspirations for government after the 2015 General Election. We met Ms Onwurah at Westminster’s Portcullis House – and in a nutshell, the story seems to be: digital is good, but it has to serve the people.
Failing the digitally illiterate
All the parties agree that digital is a good thing, and technology can help people, but the difference, says Onwurah, is in the implementation.
“Digital services right now are good – but how good they are depends on who on you are and how digitally literate you are,” she told TechWeekEurope in an interview. “This government has implemented digital services with little or no concern for the digitally illiterate.”
As an example, she points to the digitisation of the benefits system: “Those on benefits are being obliged to sign on online. But these are hard to reach people. There are many barriers to them going on line.”
Recent surveys have revealed that poorer areas tend to have worse Internet coverage, and poorer people are more likely to go online with mobile phones. “If you are trying to fill out a 32 page benefit form on a mobile phone, you would see that is not the answer it is sometimes portrayed as,” she told us.
Digitisation programmes need to provide help locally, or else allow some people to opt for paper forms, she said. While it is good to help the Government make cuts, she said, Digital Government services have to also benefit the citizen.
Digital services can “enable a different kind of interaction with citizens,” she said, “a more direct interaction, and you can use that to enable both Government workers and citizens to create services together.”
She also wants to see better frameworks in public sector IT, which ensure that common tools and assets get re-used instead of being re-invented: “I hope that the Government is a platform which supports the re-use of commodity software, allowing innovation and differentiation at the application layer. That is very challenging to get right.”
These frameworks might prevent any repetition of the giant monolithic systems whose failure has blighted public sector IT in this country – and which still crop up despite the current government’s campaign against such old-style IT approaches. For instance, the Department of Work and Pensions’ Universal Credit system is going “horribly, horribly wrong,” she said, “which highlights failures both in Government and in the ICT project.”
Open Data and privacy
She is right behind the ideals of Open Data, allowing more flexible use of Government-owned information, and also behind the benefits of what used to be called “joined-up Government”, where one department’s data can be used by another.
This approach has led to major successes such as the streamlined Road Tax system, but a lot of Government systems still rely on paper – sometimes for fear of a breach of privacy.
“Joined up government is an old-fashioned buzzword. It’s an old challenge – and not a technical challenge. Technology can either help or highlight the gaps,” she said. Labour hopes to provide open interfaces to systems, she told us, “to allow safe and secure – and legitimate – data sharing.”
This brings us to the care.data debacle, where the NHS proposed to use masses of anonymised patient data for a huge preventative care system, which would monitor and improve the health of the nation. The project could have been a collective benefit, akin to vaccination – but fears quickly emerged, amid some evidence that the data involved would be for sale to drug and insurance companies.
“Care.data is an interesting case,” Onwurah told us. “There were two issues. The fact that people weren’t giving their consent freely or in an informed manner, because it was an opt-out system, and there was the sale of that data to the private sector.”
The end result was a lost opportunity, she admitted, and Labour hopes to avoid any repeat of that, with a review of digital ethics which forms part of the Digital Government Review.
Finally, a quick word on start-ups. The digital economy needs support, she said and – despite the success of London Technology Week – it should not be limited to London.