In the early years of online service design, the online part was felt by many to be a self-contained activity. To the extent that other ways of accessing services were to be considered, it was in terms of encouraging switching to the online service. Gradually that got replaced by a more human approach, recognising that there was a special responsibility on public bodies , because governments don’t have the luxury of choosing their customers, or more specifically of choosing which groups they feel comfortable excluding from their service offer. The current UK government Service Manual is quite clear on the need to provide a joined up service across all channels:
Users should not be excluded or have an inferior experience because they lack access to technology or the skills to use it.
That’s still as important as it always was. But in the meantime, the nature of the problem has changed and broadened. This post is a lament for a disappearing world in which it was possible to operate with cash and without technology, being replaced by a world in which not wanting to – or not being able to – adapt to changing ways of getting things done leads to marginalisation and exclusion.
Mum’s 84 but she’s as sharp as a tack. It should be her choice whether to embrace the digital era or not. And society should respect that.
In one sense, though, ‘society’ isn’t doing anything. Lots of independent decisions are being made, predominantly about the design of commercial services, with the cumulative impact of those decisions heading in a clear direction. Whatever the (imperfect) clarity of government’s role as a service provider, there is a growing and largely unanswered question about government’s role as a regulator of service provision. There have been patchy attempts to discourage the last bank branch leaving town, there are occasional suggestions that shops should be required to accept cash, and that shops should stay on high streets rather than join the migration to ring roads and the cloud, but nothing which amounts to a coherent policy, still less one with practical effect.
What counts as undesirable new technology is, of course, not a constant. I remember being told with absolute confidence many years ago that older people would always want to transact their business with government face to face, and that there was no point even in thinking of developing telephone services for them. A few years later I was told with equal confidence – as it happens by the same person – that older people would always want to transact their business with government by telephone, and that there was no point even in thinking of developing online services for them. Both the technology and the people had changed in the meantime – and those changes are, of course, why the old patterns of service provision are disappearing, because demand, expectations and generations have all moved on – and all those things will inexorably move on again.
But none of that is any comfort to those who can’t – or don’t want to – keep up with that pace of change. Each of us will adapt to every iteration until we reach the one when we don’t. Society should respect that. Whether it can find the will and the means to do so is the harder question.