Some people may be aware of the UK (Westminster) government beginning to implement a ‘digital by default’ policy. This was presented in the 2010 report by Martha Lane Fox, the UK Digital Champion and now the government has set out what the recommendations will mean in reality. They include a single digital platform (called GOV.UK) which will merge many hundreds of different government sites onto one domain, and various interactions between the public and the UK Government which will be conducted digitally. The type of things covered by this includes the new Universal Credit for job seekers and those on low incomes.
Reasons for moving to digital delivery include financial savings (e.g. booking an appointment with a GP online saves time and resources compared with ringing up or calling in) and also the UK government’s desire to ‘drive a channel shift’ to digital so that the government can ‘offer world class digital services which meet people’s needs and expectations’. The desire to shift more people to digital through everyday transactions is part of their longer term digital inclusion plans so that more people become used to being online and benefit from its advantages.
I have just been to two different meetings where digital by default was discussed. It’s my understanding that in Wales the approach (see Digital Wales) will be ‘digital first’, allowing for alternatives if digital transaction is not possible. In my opinion this provides a more inclusive approach. We know from statistics that many people do not have access to computers or the Internet at home or have never used the Internet.
Digital first is also more grammatically correct. And people who know me know I like my grammar! What ‘digital by default’ indicates to me is that the default position is digital, but, that there is an alternative. For example, the default setting for the printer is double-sided, but, the alternative is single-sided printing. I’m happy to use the default 90% of the time, but sometimes, I am required to print something single-sided. If the printer didn’t have two options the duplex setting wouldn’t be a ‘default’ setting, it would just be the only setting.
My understanding from what was said at the meetings was that for many UK government services there isn’t going to be an alternative – it’s digital or nothing. To me therefore, this isn’t ‘digital by default’, it’s ‘digital only’. I’ve been trying to see if all or some of the digital services from the UK will be digital only, and it does seem that there may be some alternative delivery channels. They have information about ‘assisted digital’ plans to help those without digital skills or access. Libraries are mentioned in relation to the skills people will need to acquire so they can operate digitally: “signposting to internet training for those requiring digital skills e.g. via UK Online centers, libraries etc.”
The relevance for libraries is therefore about provision of equipment, Internet access and skills training. For those without personal computers or the Internet, the library is the place where they can access essential government services.
Librarians will therefore need to know about all the various online UK government services that people need to access, and may need to be prepared to actually help people use the websites, potentially even helping them put sensitive data into online forms. People who have limited/little prior use of computers and the Internet won’t necessarily have the digital skills to be confident with what they’re doing, so there may be quite a considerable teaching and confidence-building requirement on librarians. Digital literacy skills can be seen as part of the broader information literacy agenda, and the Welsh information literacy project is working to promote the importance of these skills.
In Wales, accessing computers and the Internet is free in public libraries, whereas my understanding is that in some authorities in England it’s free for the first 30minutes or so before a charge is made. And in one local library authority (Barking & Dagenham), any acccess to computers and the Internet costs a member of the public, unless they are under 20 or over 60 years old. This means anyone needing to access the digital-only government services in those public libraries will be charged. They’ll also be charged to access online information – if the library doesn’t have any hard copy encyclopedia then they’ll have to pay to access that information online. This is a whole separate topic but it has huge implications – others have blogged about it such as Phil Bradley, Infoism, and Walk you home.
The digital shift in the next few years is going to bring opportunities and challenges for libraries, but librarians and libraries are used to stepping up to challenges – if they weren’t, they wouldn’t still be around.