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Report of the Digital Government Review


Mandatory Digital: the policy debate

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The question of whether use of digital for any services should be compulsory represents a considerable tension within the principle of inclusion. On the one hand, the Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude MP, has given interviews about implementing a mandatory digital policy as an extension to “digital-by-default” [21]. On the other hand, HMRC have already had to relax rules for mandatory online VAT filing by small businesses following a court ruling [22] which determined that small businesses could not be compelled to file their VAT online if it was judged “not reasonably practicable for them to file electronically.”

In addressing this tension, we would encourage proportionality and a caring system that accommodates people and does not force technology upon them. In some cases, however, we feel that it is important to encourage people to use digital services where they have the capability.

Outside of the public sector, a small financial penalty has sometimes been found to offer such encouragement [23]. Private sector businesses, however, are not in a position where they are providing services to everyone in society – which is precisely the mandate of the public sector. As was stated at the beginning of this chapter, the biggest users of government services are already amongst the most excluded in society. Penalising some people will simply put those people more in need of the state.

This is a major public policy area for ministers and politicians. It is akin to the decisions on which lifestyle choice the NHS supports or the uniform tariff elements of the Royal Mail [24]. It is a debate that needs to take place, and one likely to boast no one-size-fits-all solutions.

There are historic parallels here, such as policy debates over differential pricing for pre-payment energy meters. Similarly, when it comes to the business of bringing digital services to every citizen as universally and inclusively as possible, the effort required may be as significant as that required during the switchover from analogue to digital terrestrial television services. The analogue-digital switchover was successful but was a significant exercise that spanned multiple Parliamentary terms.

To take one international example, Denmark’s planned move to digital will be the culmination a five-year programme of work including both digital transformation, digital access and digital inclusion activities. The strategy had been developed, agreed and is being delivered by all layers of government [25]. Such a piece of policy development is beyond the capabilities of this independent review, but offers an important case study for future investigations.

We would strongly encourage wider, deeper and more inclusive political debate if such a digital switchover was to be explored for the UK.

[21] “Go on the Internet – or lose access to government services, Francis Maude tells pensioners” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/Internet/10889563/Go-on-the-Internet-or-lose-access-to-government-services-Francis-Maude-tells-pensioners.html
[22] http://www.litrg.org.uk/News/2014/140502-PR-hmrc-relaxes-mandatory-filing-vat-returns-online
[23] For example a charge for printed bank statements or for producing concert tickets
[24] http://www.royalmailgroup.com/about-us/regulation/how-were-regulated/universal-service-obligation
[25] http://www.digst.dk/Servicemenu/English/News/Campaigning-for-mandatory-digital-communication

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