Universal Credit (UC) is the government’s first “digital by default” benefit, with claimants expected to use the internet to apply, and then check on their payments. It combines six existing benefits: housing benefit, income support, employment support allowance, jobseekers allowance, working tax credit and child tax credit.
But numerous studies suggest that those most likely to need government assistance are those most likely to be digitally excluded – which means robust alternative methods of claiming must be put in place, and stay in place well into the scheme’s lifetime.
People approaching state pension age are largely digitally literate, with 78% of those aged between 55 and 64 saying they had access to, and used, the internet in 2013. However, above this age group there’s a significant drop-off.
Ofcom says adults in their 60s are more than twice as likely as adults in their 70s and over to be current or likely internet users, and the same trend applies to mobile phone use.
A fifth of 55-64-year-olds use a tablet to go online. Among 65-74-year-olds, tablet use has more than trebled, from an admittedly low 5% to 17%.
Among 55-64-year-olds, 40% use smartphones to go online, compared to 20% of 65-74-year-olds.
It’s not that older people don’t know how to use the technology – the increase in downloading games from the internet is largely driven by people aged 45-64, according to Ofcom.
The Pew Internet Project says that among non-internet users, 48% said the main reason they didn’t bother was that they didn’t think it was relevant to them; only 21% are concerned about cost, and just 6% say access and availability are the problem.
Indeed, a large part of the reason many choose not to go online is that they’re used to different ways of doing things.
A parallel can be drawn with the changing face of banking.
At present there are more than 9,700 bank branches in the UK, backed up by roughly 11,700 post office branches offering access to banking services.
But the British Banking Association (BBA) says footfall in branches is down 10%, while online transactions account for almost £1 billion a day and ATM use continues to increase.
Many banks are closing branches or refurbishing them to focus on digital provision of services, complete with tablet computers for basic transactions and internet discussion screens for consultations.
But the industry says these changes will help them serve a wider area, and a wider range of customers.
For example, remote branches may end up having shorter opening hours – but staff will be available online during the rest of the day to assist customers who can’t get to a branch.
In the meantime, the Post Office is becoming increasingly important to people who prefer to sort their banking and benefits in person – a group that includes older, disabled and low-income people.
Too complicated to do online
Ofcom says 61% of internet users complete government processes online, but fewer do so regularly. Those aged 55-64 are third most likely to bother, and 27% say they do at least four times a year. Among the over-65s, only 17% say they do so on a regular basis.
At the other end of the population, the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group says many younger people surveyed don’t like accessing government services online because the bulk of their internet access is via handheld devices.
While they may make finding information easier, smartphones and tablets aren’t well suited to more complicated processes.
Streamlining online services to make them more useable for mobile internet users could help uptake across the population – and this is indeed the plan once UC has been completely rolled out.
“Default” versus “alternative”
LITRG warned in 2012 of the dangers of confusing “digital by default” with “purely digital” – something Universal Credit’s introduction seems to be bearing out.
They said that in creating a service that was primarily available online, the government also had to provide a multi-channel option with alternatives that didn’t put any users at disadvantage – in terms of access, cost, or loss of benefit.
The DWP’s plan for UC had been that support and access for those who didn’t or couldn’t go online would be provided primarily over the phone, with some face-to-face assistance for those who really need it.
It’s now committed to making sure all its job centres and offices have new computers and Wi-Fi access by the end of 2014, adding training so that more staff can offer support to users.
Mix and match
It turns out that where Universal Credit has been trialled, younger, supposedly more confident, computer users have shown a desire for extra face-to-face support.
This is backed up by experience in other countries switching to digital services.
In Japan nearly half of all those who file their taxes online choose to go into a local tax office either to use a computer or get help from an advisor in filing their return.
And of 25 governments involved in an OECD study on tax services administration, almost all of them reported that although they offered – and pushed – an online service, there was still strong demand for assistance over the phone and in person.
Encouragingly, the government seems to have taken on board that a fixed human presence and a degree of non-digital “business as usual” is crucial for the service’s users while Universal Credit beds in.
But it mustn’t be allowed to forget the importance of those features as take-up widens; digital access to any service should not be mandatory.
As time goes on, older users will become increasingly tech-savvy and the numbers needing high levels of support will drop – but it’s likely there will always be call for a local office offering alternative methods of getting the services we need.
Lyndsey Burton is the founder of Choose, a consumer information site that covers digital inclusion topics.