Select Committee on Public Accounts Sixteenth Report

2  Risks to the accessibility of public services

9. The Government's strategy for the delivery of public services is informed by Sir David Varney's review of service transformation. The strategy is set out in the Transformational Government Strategy and in the 2007 Service Transformation Agreement which was published as part of the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review.[22] Delivering services over the internet is just one of a range of channels that government can use to deliver services and information to citizens, customers and businesses. Others include call centres, mail, face-to-face meetings, mobile phones and digital television.

10. The internet, however, is not always the most appropriate channel for all citizens or all services. This may be because some services are better suited to face to face transactions (such as being interviewed for a passport) or because a particular service is aimed at a social group likely to not have ready internet access such as those on low incomes. The Transformational Government Strategy sets out the Government's plans to invest in websites alongside other channels, based on an understanding of their customers' needs.[23] This understanding is intended to form the basis for government organisations' channel strategies, setting out how they plan to deliver online service improvements. At present, however, a third of government organisations do not have such strategies.

11. The Government is promoting the use of electronic channels such as the internet and contact centres for routine transactions such as renewing vehicle excise duty. Online delivery can be more efficient than more traditional means of service delivery. The Varney review estimated that up to £400 million could be saved from greater use of electronic service delivery.[24] The money released in this way could be used to fund services for those people who do not, or cannot, use the internet, such as the socially excluded. For example, The Pension Service, local authorities and the voluntary sector provide joint face-to-face services for those who cannot access services in other ways.[25]

12. The Cabinet Office does not know how much money is being saved through the delivery of services over the internet. Internet transactions are administratively cheaper, but most departments do not know the costs per transaction and how they compare with the costs of other channels. The Government also does not know whether any savings from moving central government services to the internet are being used to improve more traditional service channels for those who cannot use internet services or whose needs may be complex and require a more targeted, tailored service that involves human interaction.[26]

13. Some government organisations are reducing face-to-face contact, as demonstrated by the increasing use of telephone contact centres by The Pension Service. The impact of this change on socially excluded citizens is unknown.[27] There is a risk that the drive to deliver more services online could increase social exclusion if more personalised means of delivery are not also promoted with the same degree of vigour and enthusiasm.[28] Those who use government services the most tend to be people on lower incomes and the socially excluded.[29] They are also much less likely to have either the skills or the access to technology to use the internet. For example, 79% of people receiving means tested benefits lack ICT skills and 75% of socially excluded people do not use the internet. Around half of those earning less than £10,400 a year have never used it.[30]

14. The Government wishes to make internet access available to as many people as possible. To meet this objective, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills sponsors some 6,000 UK online centres providing free or low-cost internet access. These are used by around three million people every year.[31] Most centres are located in public libraries, and many help people to access public services online. However, the level of support and training on offer varies and, in some cases, is very limited.[32]

15. Local authorities are also developing shared services. For example, the Rushcliffe First Contact Signposting Scheme and the One-Stop-Shop services provided jointly by Staffordshire Moorlands County Council and District Council.[33] These provide joined-up public services at a single location, offering advice and guidance on employment, benefits and pensions.

16. 45% of contacts with the Disability and Carers Service and around 23% of contacts with The Pension Service come through intermediaries. Government departments have found it difficult, however, to establish online communications with intermediaries, and the Cabinet Office has been cautious about the use of intermediaries because of fears about identity fraud. In 2007, the Department commissioned research to explore how such links could be developed in the future. This work is being reviewed and the Cabinet Office plan to develop a strategy for engaging with intermediaries in 2008.[34]

22   HM Treasury, Service Transformation: A better service for citizens and businesses, a better deal for the taxpayer Back

23   Qq 19, 38 Back

24   HM Treasury, Service Transformation: A better service for citizens and businesses, a better deal for the taxpayer Back

25   Ev 13 Back

26   Qq 76-77 Back

27   Qq 62-69, 85 Back

28   Qq 61, 69 Back

29   Q 19 Back

30   Qq 61, 82, 91 Back

31   Qq 19, 57 Back

32   Qq 57, 59, 60, 82 Back

33   Ev 13 Back

34   Qq 82, 91-92 Back

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Prepared 29 April 2008