Headlines: February 20th, 2003

More needs to be done to encourage older people to use government e-services if those services are to provide value for money, according to the National Audit Office which is warning of the dangers of a digital divide.In a report today the head of the NAO, Sir John Bourn, says while steps have been taken to encourage sections of society, such as older people, to make greater use of e-services, government departments and agencies need to be more proactive.

Sir John says, “If government is to take full advantage of the potential of technology, it must make sure its e-services are accessible to all and work to avoid a digital divide. More older people would be willing to use new technologies if they saw the benefit to them of doing so. The Office of the e-Envoy, Departments and agencies have a key role to play in publicising the benefits of e-services and providing older people with the encouragement and facilities to use them.”

The government set itself a target that everyone who wants access to the Internet should have it by the end of 2005. It expects to invest 6 billion pounds by March 2006 to ensure that all of its services are available electronically. The NAO report covers e-services in several forms. It says most public organisations now have websites, and some provide services via call centres, electronic kiosks and digital TV. So far, though, older people have tended to use e-services far less than younger people. While 94 per cent of 16 to 24 year olds have used the Internet, only 17 per cent of those over 65 have done so.

Sir John praises the efforts of many UK online centres to encourage people with few or no IT skills, but feels that others could do more to encourage older people to use their facilities. He is concerned about the sustainability of some centres once current short-term funding ends and he is worried that progress has been slower than expected in setting them up in deprived areas. The government sees interactive digital television as an additional way of delivering services to older people, but Sir John today warns departments not to develop further major interactive digital television services independently until existing pilots demonstrate a clear business case for the medium.

Among the NAO’s recommendations are that the Office of the e-Envoy should clearly define and publicise how it intends to measure progress towards the target of internet access for all who want it by 2005, and the criteria for assessing when the target is achieved. The Office should also consider setting and monitoring a specific target for usage amongst older people to  focus attention on this group.They should also undertake a marketing  campaign, which includes specialist voluntary sector organisations and, in the media most commonly used by older people, highlight the benefits of  using e-services, drawing attention to the main services available   electronically.

The NAO also calls for steps to ensure that the requirements of those with disabilities are taken into account in any further development of  government digital television and information kiosk services. It is also encouraging all departments and agencies to review their e-services regularly against best practice on accessibility.