Headlines: September 20th, 2012

The digital divide, with the elderly on the wrong side, is limiting wider use of online public services.

The digital divide, formerly between the haves and the have nots, has shifted to a generational issue. Four out of ten people aged 65 or over do not have access to the internet at home, with 5.4 million having never used the internet. Only 5% of those aged 65 or above own a smartphone compared to nearly three quarters of 16-24 year olds.

A survey by SAS UK into the way that government communicates with the citizen found that just under half of over 55 year olds thought that being able to submit forms or payments online would be a help in communicating with the government. This means that over 10 million UK citizens could be at risk of isolation if all government engagement was to move to online channels.

This divide is highlighted in a report from Policy Exchange which supports the greater use of the internet to deliver more personalised, cheaper and speedier public services but says that the government must pay special attention to older people who often prefer face-to-face contact when carrying out activities such as paying bills, grocery shopping or banking.

The report recommends setting up a UK wide network of ‘silver sidekicks’ – older, tech savvy people who would be paid to go into peoples’ homes and community centres to teach them how to use the internet to make digital transactions such as renewing a driving licence or paying a utility bill.

The report estimates that the creation of 1,000 paid roles would be sufficient to reach up to 4.5 million people not on the internet over five years. If just one in ten of this group can be persuaded to go online, the net savings for government from cheaper transactions could be worth up to £120million in the same time period.

The internet provides great potential for public service delivery, including greater personalisation, speedier service and substantial cost savings. The transformation of public services must happen because the internet has become a pervasive feature of modern society. With 76% of people online at home and 44% of people accessing the internet on their smartphones, citizen expectations are rising and they expect more innovative use of technology in public service delivery.