back to article Watchdog warns not to create 'them and us' digital divide

The National Audit Office has warned that the British government's fixation with its digital-by-default agenda could create a "them and us" mentality that excludes more vulnerable members of society who don't access the internet. In a report entitled Digital Britain 2: Putting users at the heart of government’s digital …


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  1. Ole Juul


    To use online public services people need to be able to trust the government with the information they provide online.

    I'm sure that many will trust the government, but that doesn't mean that they actually can be trusted. If a bank gets hacked, people will go to a different bank. There is an incentive for banks to be secure. The government, on the other hand, is in a different position. They get hacked, and people will go to a different .... what? Exactly. There is no incentive for a government to do the best they can.

  2. Mr Spock

    Them or Us

    Before we start... tell us which side Martha Lane Fox is on.

  3. Uncle Slacky Silver badge

    "excludes more vulnerable members of society who don't access the internet"

    I thought that was the government's intention all along?

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: "excludes more vulnerable members of society who don't access the internet"

      If by "exclude" you mean "hunt with dogs" then yes

    2. MrT

      Nice to see...

      ... Francis Maude completely failing to focus on the main issue of the report. Still, twas ever so, since government spin was first spun, so I don't even know why I expect otherwise.

  4. Ragarath

    Just buy a computer! Sorted.

    Please note the icon.

    1. Ole Juul

      Re: Just buy a computer! Sorted.

      I get the joke, and it's exactly what some bureaucrats seem to think.

      However, the tragedy here is that it's not about economics, it's about education. There's probably some other old fart like me reading this right now on some old piece of kit that somebody else would throw away. It would cost me nothing to get on line were I to start from scratch. People reading this forum know that running a browser doesn't need to involve a new computer, and anybody could theoretically get online regardless of income. But the sad fact is that even if the government were to give away free computers to the 15% in question, it would take some time before very many of them would be able to file something on line.

      1. Frankee Llonnygog

        Re: Just buy a computer! Sorted.

        It IS about economics. It's about the costs saved by firing 80,000 civil servants

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: Just buy a computer! Sorted.

          This is about the saving made because somebody can't claim an allowance because the computer says no -and there is no live person they can talk to and sort it out.

        2. Red Bren

          Re: Just buy a computer! Sorted.

          "It IS about economics. It's about the costs saved by firing 80,000 civil servants"

          And the money saved while those 80,000 former civil servants struggle to claim benefits through the online system that replaced them.

          And the additional money saved as 80,000 long term unemployed have their benefits cut for failing to get a job during a double/triple dip recession, in a shrinking job market, flooded by 80,000 newly unemployed civil servants.

          1. Barnie

            Re: Just buy a computer! Sorted.

            Red Bren are you saying we should continue to employ Civil servants to stop them being unemployed!? The Public Sector is the BIG Elephant in the room the needs cutting down to a proper size i.e no more "busy" work just to keep people employed, but of course that would mean loss of voters wouldn't it?!"

            1. Red Bren

              Re: Just buy a computer! Sorted.

              Barnie said, "Red Bren are you saying we should continue to employ Civil servants to stop them being unemployed!?"

              A valid question that deserves a response rather than a down vote and the short answer is no. The longer answer is that I don't believe in a job for life and that progress often has casualties, but how we treat those casualties is a measure of how equitable our society is.

              What I'm railing against is the laying off of knowledgeable staff, to be replaced by a cheap (yeah, right!) ill-conceived system that has the potential to exclude the most vulnerable. I'm railing against a government that is ideologically driven to gut the public sector, irrespective of the social cost, while at the same time castigating a culture of benefit dependency that it is itself fuelling with its cuts.

              I've been on the dole and it's not the rock & roll lifestyle some make it out to be. In fact it's a pitched battle to get the benefits you're entitled to, having paid into the system for years. The system assumes you are a freeloader and it actually struggles when you're determined to find work. I've been told I've applied for too many jobs in one week for the system to handle and that I should rearrange an interview as it clashed with my sign-on time. I've been told I can't enrol on some of the useful activities the Job Centre offer because I haven't been unemployed for long enough. There may be a hard-core of work-shy individuals who know how to play the system but that is not true of the majority of unemployed, who get penalised when they're trying to do the right thing.

              To address your point about the BIG Elephant in the room, I disagree that it's the public sector that needs cutting down to size. I would be more inclined to look in the direction of a sector that the UK economy has become too reliant on, that loaned money it didn't have to people who couldn't afford to repay it, sold the debt on as a prime investment product, and then came begging for handouts when the whole pyramid scheme came crashing down.

      2. Nuke

        @ Ole Juul - Re: Just buy a computer! Sorted.

        Wrote :- "But the sad fact is that even if the government were to give away free computers to the 15% in question, it would take some time before very many of them would be able to file something on line."

        You understate the case. I know people who would never EVER use a computer - even if they had a million years to learn they are just too old, too technophobic, or too stupid.

        My wife's family are country bumpkins and some of them have repeatedly refused any offer of a free PC and set-up from younger members of the family. It's like "Why would I want one of those f#@king things?!" And outside my family, looking aound at my neighbours (this is also in the country), I think that some of them only learned to use even a phone yesterday. A PC would be out of the question for some of these people.

        Small sample - yes. But as I know several such people just in my small circle of acquaintances, think how many similar there must be repeated around the whole country.

        1. Ole Juul

          Re: @ Ole Juul - Just buy a computer! Sorted.

          Yes I do understate the case. I too live in a very small rural community and there is a fair proportion here who are simply not going to get a computer, let alone figure out where the any key is. I have a neighbour, a couple in their mid 80's, who just got a computer last year. It has taken them this long to figure how to put search terms into the Google box and what a list of results actually is for. Yesterday I got a call asking how to input a postal code. After fighting with the auto-complete, it turns out that the key piece of information here was that we needed to sort out the difference between a zero and and the letter O on the keyboard. There is indeed much to learn if one is starting from scratch. Indeed, many who don't have a computer now, are simply not going to put in the effort to get up to speed.

        2. cosymart
          Thumb Down

          Re: @ Ole Juul - Just buy a computer! Sorted.

          It is not only country bumpkins. I know of an IT worker who flatly refuses to connect to the internet at home as he is paranoid about viruses, spywear and other nasties.

  5. sandman


    It's a simple policy really. If the potential claimant (for whatever service) can't get online, they don't exist. They effectively become an unperson. As such, they can't add to the statistics or claim any money. From a government point of view it's a win-win situation.

    1. Refugee from Windows
      Paris Hilton

      Re: Untermenschen

      So suppose someone who the gov's been trying to get out of the country can only claim on line, but is banned from using the net due to a court order, then his money will dry up. Possibly he'd then have to sling his hook himself then?

      1. Don Jefe

        Re: Untermenschen

        In the U.S. it would just be too bad if the stack in impacts of breaking a law caused you hardship. Inconviences are considered a part of your punishment here.

  6. J.G.Harston Silver badge

    Suboptimal surveying techniques

    "17 per cent of the taxpayers it quizzed remained offline. ... Many of them were from the more vulnerable groups: disabled, poor or elderly"

    If they're taxpayers, then by definition, they're not poor.

    And why restrict the survey to people rich enough to pay tax, they should survey every strata of society regardless of their financial status.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re: Suboptimal surveying techniques

      Last time I checked VAT was a tax which everybody paid - rich or poor.

      1. jonathanb Silver badge

        Re: Suboptimal surveying techniques

        You only need to file a VAT return if you are a business with a turnover of more than £77k per year. Your customers who actually pay the VAT only need to worry about finding the extra 20% on the selling price to buy your stuff.

    2. Anonymous Coward

      Re: Suboptimal surveying techniques

      > If they're taxpayers, then by definition, they're not poor.

      I think you underestimate the lengths that the government will go to to extract money from people, whether they can afford it or not.

      And yes as someone else said, there are some taxes that you can't avoid if you want to buy stuff.

    3. Triggerfish

      Re: Suboptimal surveying techniques

      If you claim benefits you are still registered with the tax office. So technically you count as a taxpayer, its just that you do not get enough to pay actual tax on JSA/ income support.

      CT benefit is a discount from what you pay rather than an earning.

      Housing benefit is non taxable income.

  7. Flywheel Silver badge

    What we need is..

    .. a 21st Century MiniTel ( Maybe base it on the Raspberry Pi and keep the initiative in Blighty. Good enough to the job (very well), but not flashy enough to sell for a payday loan.

    1. Rural area satellite.

      Re: What we need is..

      What we need is to use affordable commoditized hardware, the internet and some training.

      A smartphone, phablet or tablet with a browser and pdf reader and access to WiFi should have a better chance than trying to revive MiniTel.

      I do not think the digital divide can be solved by hanging on to old tech. I'd think leap-frogging (getting smartphones, phablets or tablets wihout having to own a PC or laptop) would be much more attainable.

      A £50-£80 android tablet with WiFi could easily be used to find the info needed. By the time you have added all the UI and console stuff needed to a raspberry pi you'd be talking much more.

      I do not think there is a way to distribute all the info more cost-effectively.

      just my 2c.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    37 per cent of those questioned trusted online public services

    63 per cent of those questioned DO NOT TRUST online public services

    Online, but refuse to utilise anything which requires login.

  9. JimmyPage

    Is there not a precedent ?

    Going back to my childhood, it was not uncommon to know some people who just did not have a phone. And this was London, not some backwater.

    Clearly, at some point, it was decided that the telephone would be the primary point of contact with the state.

    I appreciate it's a little more complex to use the web, but that's where we are heading.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Recently made unemployed.

    Spoke with a Debt Councillor at the Citizens Advice Bureaux (probably not spelled right but cba digging out the dictionary), to help restructure my finances due to the huge drop in income.

    "You are going to have to discontinue the internet. Its classed as a 'Luxury' item by government guidelines, and therefore your creditors won't accept it as a justifible expense."

    So the government wants us to do everything "online", but the internet is not a justifiable expense by their own guidelines? Interesting.

    1. Frankee Llonnygog

      Re: Recently made unemployed.

      To be fair, the Government also considers the CAB a luxury, and is doing its best to discontinue it, along with legal aid, and so on.

      Elsewhere the article says, "NAO is yet to audit the service developed by the still fledgling but increasingly influential Cabinet Office team". That won't take long as the Cabinet Office has not yet managed to develop any transactional services. None, not one, zero. They have managed to claim credit for services that have existed for years though, like the DVLA

      Among their 165 bods, they have precisely none with any skill s relevant to this area. However, if you're a Parish Council that needs a Wiki, Cabinet Office are the place to go.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Recently made unemployed.

      How about phone lines ?

      I'm pretty certain these were (maybe still are ?) treated as luxuries. The argument being you can always use a payphone (and avoid the cost of line rental).

      If they accept a phone line *is* an essential, then you should be able to get "free" basic broadband from someone.

    3. Gavin McMenemy

      Re: Recently made unemployed.

      To be fair you can get good net access at your local library ...

      Of course that's assuming they haven't all closed "because no one is using them".

      1. Triggerfish

        Re: Recently made unemployed.

        "To be fair you can get good net access at your local library ..."

        Understand your sarcasm in the post.

        But since that's one often trotted out......

        Here's an example I was a 9'ish mile walk to my nearest library with net access, on the bus that's a 3.50 journey there and back on JSA of 65 quid a week, that's a fair bit. (and yes I have walked that and back I have been that skint, its a fair old walk for reasonably fit me especially because its hilly where I lived at the time).

        Oh and the library well a lot of the computers were locked down (no emailing on most, likewise restrictions on time, try doing a CV online in 15 minutes since you cant load up from a usb key something you have already prepared). since that library was also near a local uni getting a seat in the first place was also a pain.

        The library excuses really doesn't stand up to the real world at times.

    4. J.G.Harston Silver badge

      Re: Recently made unemployed.

      I hear you. After being unemployed for almost three years, on the point of bankruptcy, having county court judgements for being too poor to pay my debts, I was a few days away from losing my internet access (and thereby ability to search for and apply for jobs, and the ability for people to respond to me), and seriously contemplating selling the tools of my trade or losing them to bailiffs (and thereby not even be ABLE to do a job).

      After 1200 applications I gambled that an interview seemed more promising than the 12 others I'd had and borrowed money from my ex-wife to be able to stay alive long enough to hear back from them and get the job, and then borrow some more money from her to be able to stay alive long enough to get my first few pay packets.

      Hurray! In only 84 months I'll be completely out of debt!

      And then another six(?) years to get the CCJ wiped.

  11. The First Dave

    I used to be happy to use DirectGov online, but now that I know PayPal are involved I'm a lot less happy. Besides, the last time I had any contact, it was to get a new tax disc. The transaction online was fine, but the disc didn't arrive, and to sort our a replacement I had to make a long phone call - no option to do so online.

  12. Kubla Cant Silver badge
    Big Brother

    Letters, phone calls and emails

    Notoriously, most of the government departments that deal with the public have a huge backlog of unprocessed mail. Government online services sound like a way of cutting the backlog at a stroke.

    If you phone then you get held in a queue, and when you give up you become part of a statistic. There's no evidence that you tried to make contact. The situation with emails is presumably worse. A million unanswered letters are a bit more noticeable than a million unanswered emails, and a lot more difficult to delete.

    One advantage of snail mail is that you can have documentary evidence of delivery; failure to respond is therefore clearly the fault of the pen-pushers (presumably not pushing their p[ens as fast as they should).

  13. missjanedoe

    So presumably I am supposed to provide free computer access and support services for my elderly neighbour and the single mum across the street who do not have computers of their own. Alternatively they are supposed to get on a bus, pay nearly £6 return fare and walk half a mile using a walking stick or with two small children in tow to get to the central city library where there are computers available. Nice.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "We are developing digital services that are so good people will prefer to use them, while ensuring that those who are not able to go online are given the support they need to do so." ®

    *spews a mouthful of tea*

    Complete bollocks. This from someone who is currently using their crappy "Universal Job Search" web-shite. It's an unmitigated pile of poo. Had a problem with registering an account. It took them almost a month to eventually respond, meanwhile I'd created a new account. If I'd been just your average user I'd have been screwed (their response when they finally replied to my support ticket was to say they'd delete the old one - and it took them a month to do that?).

    The whole idea of forcing people to use a web-site rather than meet face-to-face with someone is typical thinking of people who quite obviously can't tell their arse from their elbow. There are so many well known reasons why someone is unable to use a computer on a regular basis that it's pointless to repeat them here. But that those who are making such decisions cannot see them or are just too stupid/blind (or in the pay of those who'll make £££ from the project) shows how fundamentally flawed our political system is.

    "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" - How many more Government IT projects have to fail miserably (and expensively) before people say enough is enough and burn at the stake the next minister who suggests wasting more millions/billions on yet another failed system?

    1. BioPeek

      Twits or Tw@ts, or both?

      Can we have a referendum, please?

    2. John Ruddy

      The new job vacancy website has been developed by Monster. I think they made it so bad that you were forced to use THEIR service....

  15. asdf

    on the doll again

    For the US readers us would be any human that most other humans would consider a decent human being and them would be this dude.

  16. dssf

    Speaking of Luxuries and Disallowances and Haves/Have-Nots...

    Speaking of Luxuries and Disallowances and Haves/Have-Nots...

    Santa Clara Calif is a city of 118,000 or so, sitting surrounded by Alviso, San Jose, Cupertino, & Sunnyvale, in the middle of the South Bay.

    ANYbody now walking in Santa Clara has access to FREE WIFI. Granted, it may not be suitable for watching YouTube, Hulu, etc, but for those who pay out the ass to download news, texts, and low-content (the content being dwarfed by the adverts in the pages), this is something to slam-dunk your cities, burroughs, towns, and hamlets with. MAKE them justify all the huge expenses. Ask them why there is not (other than politics) something such as what Santa Clara has.

    Wait for their response. Wait for the lobbyists to start hiring hit-men... Or the legal equivalent... Fillibusters, obstructions, stall jobs, rate hikes, and so on.

    Imagine the day when automobile owners volunter to be wifi mesh nodes, as long as the device doesn't drain the vehicle's battery.

    Yes, privacy will have to be maintained on these meters, and some hacks will probably start tinkering and poking to see what fun can be had. But, so long as they don't crash the party, people might end up cancelling their xfinity and comcast accounts in droves....

  17. riparian zone

    Identity providers?

    I'm more interested in the 8 identity providers...*why in all that is holy* why would the likes of Paypal get to manage the ID for Gov? what happened to the government gateway?National insurance numbers?

    I was in the field for UK Online for 7 long years getting the message out that you can 'do stuff' on-line..I even managed a project whereby we tried to set it up as part of monitoring utilities, bus timetables, useful stuff. the ones that wanted to get it, got it, the others just not interested.

    The mid west amerikans didn't want internet access because they didn't NEED IT, thanks..we get the same here..why would some old person that has given their best years through a proper world war or more, then be told, that they HAVE TO have access at home...there was a project in Hull promoting tele-healthcare using set top boxes and wireless keyboards...yes to that for the good it does, but then they want to force it on people? After making the UK Online project shrink, with the admin and return for centres pathetic and almost impractical?

    grrr. All sounds like cost cutting, and will undoubtedly end in tears...the mixed approach is best.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Identity providers?

      I think the problem with the Government Gateway was that a) it worked b) it was developed by the last Government and c) it didnt give the opportunity for a big business to donate large sums of money to the Conservatives.

  18. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge

    I would'nt

    touch the government online benefit system with a 10 foot barge pole (thats 3 meters for our younger readers).

    Why? for exactly the same reason I dont do online banking

    Its not secure.

    Heck I dont even like typing my credit card number into steam.

    And the last thing I want is a bunch of crooks running around with my details because the government cant be arsed to pay enough for a decent website, let alone a secure one

    1. Don Jefe

      Re: I would'nt

      I hear you. Online banking just isn't safe. For that matter regular banks aren't safe. Hell, one was robbed here just a few days ago!

      My problem was what to do with all my cash. I'd already replaced my mattresses with bundles of bills and the planning commission wouldn't approve my building an underground bunker. I decided to invest most (not all cause that ain't safe either) of my money in dogs! Yes dogs! You can get them cheap from the humane society, clean them up nice, eat them AND they can run away with you when the homos and commies come for you!

  19. All names Taken

    Them? Us? Us? Them?


    The UK would not exist were it not for an Us and Them culture.

  20. Triggerfish

    At a remove.

    One other thing that does occur to me is this, sorry if to long

    You can be at a distance from the problem.

    Why am I saying this, well for a time I temped for the council and one of my jobs was arranging repayments of council tax. This means I phoned up people in debt and tried to get them to pay back, we had some leeway to make our decision however final decision is made by backroom CT officers who and this is important never had to deal with the public.

    So sometime you get people who have fallen behind, and after a while and because you can see previous records you get a sense of whose bullshitting (ok not 100% accurate) you and who genuinely seems to be have problems at the moment, now you can get them to pay (in fact a lot of the genuine cases were quite willing, (people do weird things round debt and troubles at times by ignoring them or not dealing with them quick enough)) but it might not be the amount that's enough to get someone to pay by the new CT bill, maybe some months over but they'll pay and it probably helps them at least survive their current problems and get straight again.

    Something like that could quite often get squished, and then pursued through things like attachments of earnings, for a larger amount straight out of there wages, so causing them further problems (I guess).

    You see they don't have to talk to those people and so they are at a remove, its easy to be faceless and just see it as some numbers to crunch like that, its easy to ignore the impact it might make.

    Its very easy for a computer to say no.

  21. Cipher

    Ole Juul

    "I get the joke, and it's exactly what some bureaucrats seem to think.


    But the sad fact is that even if the government were to give away free computers to the 15% in question, it would take some time before very many of them would be able to file something on line."

    I'm left wondering how many of the 15% will sell the computer given them for the cash to procure their more essential requirements...

    Also, what is the government's vested interest in having everyone post their data online? oh wait, i think i just answered my own question...

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