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More needs to be done to encourage older people – an increasingly large proportion of the population – to use government e-services if those services are to provide value for money, according to the National Audit Office.

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The government set itself a target that everyone who wants access to the internet has it by the end of 2005. The government expects to invest some £6 billion in e-services by March 2006 to ensure that all of its services are available electronically. Today’s report to Parliament by head of the NAO Sir John Bourn points out that, while steps have been taken to encourage sections of society, such as older people, who have so far been low users of e-services, to use them, government departments and agencies need to be more proactive to tackle the dangers of a ‘digital divide’.

The NAO report covers e-services in several forms. Most public organisations now have websites, and some also provide services via call centres, electronic kiosks and digital TV. Up to now, though, older people have tended to use e-services far less than younger people. While 94 per cent of 16 to 24 year olds have used the internet, only 17 per cent of those over 65 have. While this may be changing slowly, barriers to increased use include the physiological effects of ageing, lack of confidence or familiarity with new technologies, cost, location and a belief by older people that e-services are of no relevance to them.

The government has developed a variety of initiatives to increase use of e-services by groups such as older people, both at home and in public places. For example, a network of over 6,000 UK online centres, aimed at offering access to IT to a number of groups including older people, was successfully delivered by the end of 2002. There have also been projects to provide refurbished computers to those on low incomes, including those pensioners on Minimum Income Guarantee. Piloting of information kiosks and digital television has been undertaken partly to identify barriers to use by those uneasy about using new technology. And the Office of the e-Envoy, working with groups such as Age Concern and Abbey National, has undertaken advertising and promotional activities aimed specifically at older people.

Sir John praised the efforts of many UK online centres to encourage people with few or no IT skills, but felt that others could do more to encourage older people to use their facilities. He expressed some concern about the sustainability of some centres once current short-term funding ended and noted that progress had been slower than expected in setting them up in deprived areas. The government sees interactive digital television as an additional way of delivering services to older people, but Sir John warned that departments should not develop further major interactive digital television services independently until existing pilots demonstrate a clear business case for the medium.

Many government departments and agencies are taking steps to make their websites more ‘user friendly’ and there is widespread recognition of the need to ensure that services can be used, for example, by those with visual impairments (90 per cent of people who are blind or partially sighted are over 65).

However, today’s report shows that many government websites still do not incorporate design features that would make it easier for older people to use them. An examination of 65 websites likely to be of interest to many older people revealed that none complied with all the criteria, and only 25 per cent passed tests involving software to check adherence with worldwide standards. The Office of the e-Envoy has now begun to review government websites and discuss improvements with the relevant departments and agencies. Many are making improvements as they update their sites.

Among the NAO’s recommendations are that the Office of the e-Envoy takes the following action:

  • clearly define and publicise how it intends to measure progress towards the target of internet access for all who want it by 2005, and the criteria for assessing when the target is achieved;
  • consider setting and monitoring a specific target for usage amongst older people to focus attention on this group;
  • undertake a marketing campaign, which includes specialist voluntary sector organisations and, in the media most commonly used by older people, highlight the benefits of using e-services, and draw attention to the main services available electronically; and
  • ensure that the requirements of those with disabilities are taken into account in any further development of government digital television and information kiosk services.

It also encourages all departments and agencies to review their e-services regularly against best practice on accessibility.

"Older people are major users of public services but, as a section of society, are far less likely to access those services electronically. However, these e-services are potentially a great boon to older people many of whom have mobility problems, have difficulty in gaining access to sources of information, live alone or want to remain independent and involved.

"If government is to take full advantage of the potential of technology, it must make sure its e-services are accessible to all and work to avoid a ‘digital divide’. More older people would be willing to use new technologies if they saw the benefit to them of doing so. The Office of the e-Envoy, Departments and agencies have a key role to play in publicising the benefits of e-services and providing older people with the encouragement and facilities to use them."

Sir John Bourn


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