Get more people to interact with government online and save billions, says Martha Lane Fox
As I write this, somewhat bleary-eyed after a long election night with David Dimbleby, I feel sure half of the BBC’s news team must be on some kind of non-prescription drugs to have kept going all day and night.
The political backdrop is still complex and, despite hours of debate and comment, it is still too hard to predict how the situation will resolve itself.
Whatever negotiations take place between now and when you read this column, one thing is clear - any Government is going to face very tough choices about the macroeconomic climate and very difficult decisions about cost-cutting within Whitehall.
As the UK’s digital champion, a role I took on last year, I have been looking at how the increasing use of digital technologies in business and private life has affected non-users.
Not many people are aware of the scale of the problem - 10 million adults have never used the internet and an additional 5 million have only used it once. That means that more than a quarter of the adult population has no engagement, or hardly any, with a tool the rest of us now take for granted.
Perhaps more troublesome is the breakdown of non-users by socio-economic group - 4 million of the 10 million suffer from a minimum of three or more measures on the Government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation. 39% of the people that are in this category are over 65, 38% are unemployed and 19% are families with children.
I believe the government should intervene to help bring everyone online. The economic case is so compelling, I think no future government will be able to ignore it.
Because the lowest-income adults are also the heaviest users of government services, there is much to gain.
If one interaction a month that the 10 million non-users have with government were to become an electronic transaction, the savings would be upwards of £1bn a year.
With such dramatic savings on offer, I am making the case in government that bringing more people up the digital curve is essential.
But government faces the same juggling act between channels that industry has been grappling with over the past decade - how do you promote the web without destabilising stores? How do you manage the transition from face-to-face complaints handling to more automated systems? How do you work out what is the best for customers in each situation?
If government is to make the necessary cost-cutting initiatives, it must look at the retail sector and see what it can learn. Equally importantly, it must work hard to close the digital divide, or the cost savings will never be achieved. Please follow me via twitter @marthalanefox to see how the work is progressing.
Martha Lane Fox is a director of Marks & Spencer and founder of Lucky Voice