Ofcom’s annual Communications Market Report was published yesterday with a range of observations about the communication and media habits across Northern Ireland (as well as Scotland, Wales and the UK as a whole).
In this post I want to concentrate on the section of the report that looks at take-up of online government services, often known as e-government. But first some other headlines from the NI CMR 13 report:
- Northern Ireland was slower than the rest of the UK to adopt the internet (dial-up and broadband) in their homes. However, in the past year, broadband take-up has risen 5 percentage points up to 74% (just short of UK average of 75% and ahead of Scotland and Wales). 78% of households have access to the internet (cable, broadband – fixed or mobile – or dial-up etc).
- NI leads the UK in terms of tablet computing, with three in ten households (29%) now owning one compared with UK average of 24%. In urban areas of NI, it’s even higher with a third of households owning a tablet (34%).
- Two thirds (66%) of households in NI are using pay-TV platforms (UK average 59%).
- Compared with overall UK figures, slightly fewer people in NI listen to the radio (NI adult reach 87.1%; UK 89.5%). However, we’re very fond of local commercial and local BBC services than other parts of the UK, with 58% of listening focussed on local stations.
- 3G coverage still lags behind Scotland, England and Wales with only 88.3% of premises covered by at least one operator (97% Scotland, 97.6% Wales, 99.7% England). Rural 3G coverage in NI dips to 78.5% of premises against UK average of 96.6%. EE, O2 and Vodafone have committed improving their 3G coverage in NI.
Now back to how we interact with local government and public bodies in NI.
Research quoted in Ofcom’s Communications Market Report showed that faced with needing to contact their local council to find out about refuse collection, only 3% of those surveyed in Northern Ireland would prefer to user the council website or email. Instead 85% would prefer to lift the phone (either their home phone or mobile).
The NI Direct portal has been steadily publishing more and more information in easy to understand language from departments and public bodies and – more importantly – boosting the number of government services that can be accessed online. Local council websites have been improving their web offerings too.
In Northern Ireland, around half [48%] of those with internet access have used online government services; a lower proportion that England, [Scotland] and Wales.
So less than half have gone online to fill out a tax return online, or complete the Census, or book an MOT etc.
Asking citizens about their communication preferences for performing these king of e-Government services, 23% of people said they’d use a website/email compared with 40% of those surveyed in Scotland and 45% in England.
Instead, 34% would prefer to conduct business with their local council or NI government departments in person (face-to-face); 17% would use the post, 15% would pick up the phone.
64% of all adults with internet access said they would feel confident using government services online.
Yet once the initial inertia has been overcome:
Over eight in ten of those who used government services online said that they were more convenient (89%), saved time (85%) and they preferred to access these services online (81%).
61% of users of the online services said they had engaged with government services or policies more since accessing them online. Attitudes towards using government services online are similar across the nations.
Away from dealing with public bodies, we’re much less reluctant to shop online: 60% of people surveyed (who had the internet at home) admitting to shopping online, 38% in the week prior to being surveyed. For the regular online shoppers, NI is well ahead of most of the rest of the UK.
Food for thought for NI Direct and the new DFP Minister Simon Hamilton as well as the new NI councils and DOE minister Mark H Durkan who surely need to group together to develop consistent user interfaces, shared codebases and back-ends, and better promotion of online services to boost take-up (and achieve the cost savings the NI Executive require).
But there’s also a challenge to find ways to afford to retain call centres and walk-in offices that can support citizens with cost-efficient processes for those who will struggle to switch to online.