Socially Inclusive e-Government?

Catherine Sladen
Internet Communications Manager
UK Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions


The UK Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) aims to improve the quality of life of British citizens. But how can it really achieve this through the Internet? The combination of ambitious electronic service delivery targets and a social inclusion policy, illustrate how government wrestles with potentially contradictory aims. Can the Internet be socially inclusive? What relationship can government have with this powerful medium?

As a large government department, we are presented with the opportunity to explore how we can take corporate aims and objectives and fulfil this target through innovative and creative use of web technology. Accessibility requirements present us with challenge of how to achieve truly interactive government and meet these ambitions. Through joined up working, government departments can try to find solutions and arrive at genuinely socially inclusive electronic government.

The problems posed by the dichotomy of social inclusion and 100% electronic service delivery targets will be explored in this paper.

1. Introduction

“I want Britain to aim for universal access to the Internet by 2005” declared Tony Blair, the British prime minister in March 2000, pushing the timetable for government services to be online forward by three years from his original ambitions which were set out in the Modernising Government White paper.

The phenomenal growth in use of the Internet in the home, the workplace and its increasing intrusion on popular culture has not gone un-noticed by the UK government. The advent of free ISPs in the UK marketplace in the innovating form of Freeserve allowed the UK user to access easily the Internet for free so long as they paid the call charges. Neither the failure of Altavista to live up to its promised free unmetered Internet access and breaking the final barrier to universal access, nor the enormous cost of local calls, have dampened the UK’s enthusiasm for all things Internet.

This electronic utopia has been embraced by government, fêted by popular media from daytime television, to serious radio programmes to popular tabloid newspapers. So is everyone at the party, or are some more welcome than others?

Social inclusion is high on the UK Government’s agenda along with its ambitions for the Internet, but are they really compatible? If 100% of government services are available online, does that mean that 100% of the population have equal access? These doubts have been expressed through considerable column inches in the UK press. The emergence of the so-called digital divide is currently not only exercising the newspapers but also government, which has recently announced funding for many new innovations to breach or prevent the gap. Ambitions, achievements and barriers are described in brief below and highlight the issues faced by the DETR and the UK Government more widely.

2. Access Figures

Recent statistics show what the UK Government is faced with in seeking to give everyone access to the Internet and to Government services online. Recent figures from the UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) showed that UK households with home access to the Internet increased from 2.2 million in April-June 1998 to 8.6 million in October-December 2000. Over half (51%) of British adults have accessed the Internet some time in their lives. This is good supporting evidence for government. A steep upward trend for Internet access. However, the figures for the number of adults who have used the Internet by social class of household tell a rather different story, as shown in figure 1.

Proportion of adults who have used internet by social class, January 2001

Figure 1. Source: National Statistics Omnibus Survey - January 2001

The overall percentage figures show a clear divide between the professional class and the unskilled class. Closing the gap between the two figures is an ambition for government and the evidence presented below shows examples of how this is being achieved.

3. Ambitions

3.1 DETR e-Business Strategy

The DETR’s central aim is to improve everyone’s quality of life, now and for the future. This aim informs the department’s attitude to electronic government. In planning for electronic business, the department has identified four key areas for improvement:

In line with wider government targets, the DETR is fully committed to making its services electronically available by 2005. Central to this work is the pursuit of:

“e-business solutions which improve the services that citizens and businesses receive, which facilitate better participation and social cohesion”. (Section 2.3.)

The size of DETR allows the department to experiment with a wide range of services, there are 49 services currently working towards (or have achieved) electronic solutions and the list shows the diversity of transactions conducted with the UK citizen at all levels. The following list provides selected highlights from the current list:

The integrated online experience a UK driver may have in the future could prove cost effective for both the Government Agency and for the customer. However DETR is conscious of excluding customers and will not be making services exclusively available online. The e-Business Strategy makes this clear:

“to be particularly sensitive to the fact that many people and organisations may not be able, or will not wish, to deal with Government directly by electronic means, and they must have the choice not to do so.” (Section 2.6)

3.2 DETR Web site

The DETR web site faces the challenge of providing a seamless experience for the customer. Currently the DETR web site hosts policy documents and as one of the early adopters of Internet technology, the site contains documents from 1996 and occupies over 1.5GB of file space for over 50,000 documents. Whilst it provides an important service for a wide range of customers, from journalists in the popular and specialist press; local authorities; academic organisations and other public bodies, amongst others, the web site does not offer the opportunity to conduct services online.

With the ambitions laid out in the DETR e-Business Strategy, the web site must now develop into a second phase and embrace technology which best serves these ambitions. This project is now in progress and is considering how it will identify its audiences, their needs and the best user experience(s) it can offer through the World Wide Web, digital television, mobile phones and emerging other technologies. By including stakeholders from the DETR agencies, from DETR central service divisions, such as the Information Management Division and the IT Services Division, the project can consult and remain flexible to developments in the e-Business strategy.

4. Achievements

Whilst the DETR has its own e-business ambitions, if the facilities are not available for the wider community to take advantage of this alternative form of service delivery, the accusations of a digital divide will remain.

4.1 Access in the Community

To aid this access issue and to close the divide identified in the ONS figures above. The UK Treasury announced that as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review 2000 that 1 billion UK pounds sterling would be committed to driving forward plans to get services online. This included some innovative ideas such as the creation of 6000 ‘UK Online Centres’ by 2002.

The Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) recently announced the launch of 1200 UK Online centres, which will give the public access to computers and the Internet. Education and Employment Secretary, David Blunkett, announced:

“this Government is committed to bridging the digital divide between those with access to the technology and those without.” (DfEE Press Notice No. 126.)

By providing low or no cost Internet access located in convenient local places and opened at a time when users want to access them, the Government has taken another step forward to providing access to the Internet for those that want it. Access is the key to success for closing the digital divide.

4.2 Supporting Local Initiatives

As well as working to deliver DETR services electronically, the department also funds local authorities (Pathfinder authorities) to assist them in their bid to meet the targets. Pathfinder authorities are those councils who qualify for grants to develop electronic service delivery projects. The first £25 million of the £350 million available was announced in March 2001. The Local Government Minister, Beverly Hughes, announced 25 new projects involving 105 local authorities to work in partnership with other public service agencies, local communities and the private sector. Through this funding the department is able to help local authorities explore different ways of delivering services electronically. The selection criteria has meant that the social inclusion agenda has been considered, resulting in innovative projects ranging from the promise of access to services in rural areas to piloting digital television to report faulty street lighting and pot holes.

4.3 UK Online

UK Online is the UK Government’s initiative to provide one stop access to government services. Championed by Patricia Hewitt, the minister for e-commerce and run by Andrew Pinder, the E-Envoy, UK Online has a phased roll out programme. Most recently this has involved the delivery of the concept of life events (previously known as life episodes). So far life events have included ‘having a baby’, ‘dealing with crime’ and most pertinent to the DETR, ‘moving home’ and ‘learning to drive’. A life event provides the citizen with a single point of reference to the information available online across government. It provides a catalogue record to identify standard pieces of data about, for example, the title of the service, the provider, a description and a hyperlink direct to the owner of the information. Providing a one stop shop approach for information is a useful step forward and demystifies the machinery of government by presenting the information in plain English and in a structure that relates to peoples’ everyday lives.

4.4 Government Gateway

To facilitate the process of delivering services online, the UK government has developed the Government Gateway. Recognising the need for economies of scale in delivering the security aspects of online services, the UK Government under the auspices of the Cabinet Office developed the Government Gateway, a piece of middleware to authenticate individual users and their transactions. A project originally dogged with problems, which it subsequently overcame, has now been successfully implemented in a small number of Government departments.

The size of the problem for the UK Government of delivering all services online cannot be underestimated: 13,000 paper forms currently exist; 5 billion government transactions are carried out annually (80% at a local level); and there is a potential 60 million customer base. Clearly some transactions are more sensitive than others and it is here that the Government Gateway can assist Government departments in developing security solutions: by creating 3 levels of authentication dependent on the department’s need to know who a customer is. These can be defined as:

  1. Level 0: not important to know who the individual is;
  2. Level 1: Username and password needed for low level security transactions;
  3. Level 2: Digital Certificates to provide individual credentials;
  4. Level 3: For transactions where there are serious repercussions for fraudulent misuse.

The levels have been devised by t-scheme.

In terms of narrowing the digital divide, the Government Gateway provides a useful technology to provide a standard interface to UK Government systems through XML schemas defined at a departmental level. Whilst this technology is only supported by PCs, the intention is to upgrade this to cater for delivery via digital television and mobile phones over time.

So far only three UK Government departments have used the Government Gateway:

DETR has yet to perform any service delivery via the Government Gateway. The 49 services described above now have the opportunity to exploit the Government Gateway to speed up the development process and take advantage of the economies of scale of this pan government work.

5. Barriers to Success

5.1 Skills

A lack of IT skills is a major barrier to universal take up of the Internet. The benefits can be seen in terms of:

The UK Government has driven the skills agenda forward through the development of the National Grid for Learning, to promote skills in school age children; providing financial support for the development over many years of (Super)Janet in the UK Higher Education community; and funding of training for school teachers and librarians under the auspices of the New Opportunities Fund.

At a local level, realisation that the school-based learning approach would not work in communities where generations of families have been alienated from the traditional education environment, has resulted in some innovative schemes being developed.

One example in the northern UK city of Newcastle has been the development of the Mobile Learning Centre. A converted van has been equipped with 8 workstations and two trainers to travel into the heart of local communities and offer access and skills training on the door step. One year into its three year programme, the scope of the project has expanded to the area surrounding Newcastle and now caters for individual groups, such as Asian women and older people. This and other projects have revealed that one of the keys to getting the disadvantaged across the digital divide is to talk to people in the environment in which they feel most comfortable. Giving people the confidence to consider trying the Internet.

“A van may seem like an unlikely place to start bridging the digital divide, but it's getting a significant number of people on the first step of the bridge.”

(“It's not easy learning new skills - especially when they involve new technology”. Guardian Society, page 4. 4 April, 2001.)

5.2 Broadband

Another barrier to the success of e- Government is the availability of broadband. The majority of users in the UK access the Internet via 28.8 or 56 kbit/s modems; and a small minority have hooked up to ADSL. The slow take up of ADSL in the UK has been attributed to cost, understanding and geographical location and this has been addressed in the recently published report from the Office of the E-Envoy, UK Online: the Broadband Future.

For the UK Government to meet its 2005 targets it needs to create a telecommunications framework that not only reduces the cost of access, but gives consumers the real choice of accessing broadband regardless of cost and location. The report promotes a four stage approach to tackling the barriers to universal access to broadband:

  1. Providing leadership through Government targets and strategy;
  2. Driving forward competition in the supply and demand of broadband infrastructure and services;
  3. Stimulating demand for broadband by using it in publicly funded services (e.g. UK Online centres); and tackling fragmentation of demand to reduce any broadband divide;
  4. Researching the costs and benefits of pump priming the market to extend services to rural areas and lower income groups.

The report concludes that the actions outlined therein “should play a significant role in facilitating the development of broadband in the UK.” With the creation of the UK Online Broadband Stakeholders Group, the actions will now be taken forward. Interviewed two months after the report's release the E-Envoy, Andrew Pinder, admitted to Computing Magazine that the digital divide did indeed exist and that the lack of broadband was a major contributing factor. Progress will be of great interest to Government departments who are developing online services. (“No New Money for broadband growth”, Computing, p.4 April 5 2001)


The UK Government has set itself ambitious targets for universal online delivery of services. At a departmental level, the DETR is taking this ambition seriously and working on its own programme of delivery. By creating central schemes, such as UK Online and the Government Gateway, departments are able to benefit from economies of scale and resist 're-inventing the wheel'; and through membership of the pan-government UK Online Broadband Stakeholders Group, the DETR can contribute to a major barrier to achieving its goals.

One of the issues highlighted above is that the ambitions may not actually reach 100% of the population and that a digital divide has been created. Creating electronic service delivery does not mean that everyone can or will want to access services in that way. The DETR has noted this and, like other departments, will not be creating an exclusively electronic environment. For those who do wish to access services online, but who lack the skills or confidence to enter a traditional learning environment, opportunities are increasingly available, as the example highlighted above demonstrates.

DETR is forging ahead in its aim to be at the forefront of electronic government and recognises the difficulties it faces. The DETR e-Business Strategy sets out a framework for achieving the Government's targets and through working in partnership at all levels it is aiming to narrow the digital divide so that by 2005 the concept will hopefully no longer be relevant.