Socially disadvantaged at risk of digital exclusion as One Stop Shops close

One Stop Shop Chrisp Street market

“What a nightmare!” was the response by one Poplar resident last week to the news that, as previously reported on LW, the borough’s One Stop Shops are to close. Or ‘integrated’ into the borough’s libraries in council-speak.

By November four of Tower Hamlet’s councils One Stop Shops will move into borough libraries, the exception being the Bethnal Green One Stop Shop. Watney Market One Stop Shop is already inside the Idea Store (library).

The Council states that of the 78 per cent of residents who contact the council by phone – over 400,000 calls a year – 54 per cent say it is difficult to get through.

The Council also states that ‘the average phone call costs taxpayers £6 and every face to face contact costs approximately £10, compared to the pennies it costs for an online transaction.’

There is no mention in the council press statement if a £6 phone call is more or less efficient than a £10 personal encounter.

There is also no explanation of the claim that online transactions do costs pennies, or their efficiency compared to phone calls or personal visits to an One Stop Shop or Idea Store.

It is likely that different tasks residents wish to carry out will be best undertaken through different channels – phone, online, in-person.

Here’s the scary bit

All residents are aware that Tower Hamlets has the highest rate of poverty in London – 39%. Child poverty is higher here than in any other borough. Rates of infant mortality and premature mortality are also significantly above the London average. (Source: London’s Poverty Profile)

A higher percentage of lone households with an adult aged 65 and over don’t have an internet connection

Research (and common sense) has established that those who do not have ready access to or use of the internet, the digitally excluded, are those who are also socially disadvantaged. Like people in Tower Hamlets.

They tend to be older people, are likely to live alone and have low qualifications. Like people in Tower Hamlets.

A higher percentage of disabled respondents reported a lack of skills or knowledge as a reason for not buying goods and services online than non-disabled respondents

‘They are smaller socially excluded groups and minority groups for whom the sources of exclusion are multiple and serious – including factors like disability, learning difficulties, ethnic origin, location, culture or language.’ Sound familiar? Source: Growing problem of ‘digital exclusion’

Across all age groups, a large proportion of adult internet non-users are disabled

Here’s the wildly unrealistic bit

At a minimum the council seems to think that the current 400,000 phone calls a year will reduce to a trickle as residents switch over to digital service provision.

Additionally the number of costly face-to-face encounters with council offers will be reduced by shoving One Stop Shop functions into Idea Stores and encouraging residents to use online services.

And here’s the hard reality bit

Tower Hamlets Council’s website does not function correctly as it is. It is so slow as to be unresponsive, it is badly organised so information and services are difficult to find and the ‘user experience’ is overwhelmingly poor.

In its current form it is not fit for purpose, and we have pointed this out many times over the years.

If Tower Hamlets had a reasonable high-speed infrastructure it would not be as bad. But our borough does not. It does not because successive administrations have not seen any benefit to it, unlike Southwark Council [LINK] who have.

Tragedy is that Tower Hamlets has, courtesy of Canary Wharf’s financial district, some of the fastest internet connectivity on the whole planet running under its streets.

Around 60% of internet usage is via mobile devices. So LW did a completely unscientific (but well-informed) test during the week and tried to access some basic functions on the Council website using our not particularly up-to-date iPhone over a fairly quick (25Mbps) broadband connection just down the road from the Town Hall. Here is what we encountered.

Applying for Single Person Discount online? Good luck with that. Or maybe checking when the next council meeting is?

If either the load (numbers of users and or transactions) on the website increases or the complexity of transactions increases it will grind to a halt.

One reason I know this to be true is that I have spent the last 30 years (yes, Moley is that old) designing websites and digital systems big and small for organisations like AMEX, Barclaycard, Bodyshop, Bulmers, Big Brother, C4, Citroen, the FSA, Ford, Google, Greenflag, IBM, ITV, L’Oreal, Lords Cricket, Marks & Spencer, NatWest, the NHS, Nicorette, Olympics 2012, Orange, Ordnance Survey, Proctor & Gamble, Royal Bank of Scotland, Royal Mail, Shell, BSkyB, Toshiba, Toyota, UBS, Vodafone, Virgin Atlantic and quite a few others.

To attempt to push some of the poorest people in London to using online services is to invite disaster.

Any idea what service these pages are supposed to be delivering? Nor us, we have gave up after several minutes wait.

So that’s now. What will it be like in three months time

LW Comment

Words fail us.

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