Comment Blog 10 May, 2019

The master’s voice: GOV.UK and the future of voice assisted government

According to the results of a six-month trial by the Government Digital Service (GDS) released last month, the increasingly popular voice assistants Amazon Alexa and Google Home can now access more than 12,000 pieces of government information in response to vocal commands. These range from simple questions such as “when is the next bank holiday?”, to more complex queries like “how do I apply for a new passport?” and “how do I get free childcare?”. The relevant responses are delivered immediately without people having to touch a keyboard or read a screen, offering a quicker and easier way for citizens to access the information they need.

As key services like Universal Credit, court paperwork, and tax returns all become “digital by default”, it is increasingly important to ensure that all citizens are able to access important information and utilise crucial government services. Successive digital strategies launched by the British government since 2012, including the most-recent 2017 Digital Strategy, have made clear that increasing the number of people using digital services is a key focus for policymakers, and an Essential Digital Skills framework has laid out the minimum skills every citizen is expected to possess.

Use of new technology like voice assistants is seen as one potential solution. By removing some of the technological barriers between citizens and digital government services and shifting the point of interaction from webpages to voice commands, voice assistants have the potential to streamline existing channels of access to information and open the information to a wider range of people. This could include those individuals who have the desire to use digital technology but may lack the physical capabilities to do so due to disability. “These results are promising,” suggests Jennifer Allum, head of GOV.UK, “because voice services can be a really convenient way to get information, particularly for people who find computers and phones hard to use”.

Nevertheless, whilst voice assistants seem likely to work well alongside digital government services, issues remain around the significant proportion of the British population who remain digitally excluded and the extent to which this new technology can help them.

Office for National Statistics data points to 5.3 million adults in the UK (around one in ten Britons) who have either never used the internet or not done so in the past three months and most of those who are digitally excluded are not excluded because they lack the right technology. Over 80 per cent of people who ascribe their exclusion to a lack of skills already have access to a laptop or desktop computer.  A study of Britons conducted in 2017 revealed that of internet non-users, 71 per cent cited a lack of interest as their main reason, with lack of skills and cost both also ranking above issues surrounding access.

As a result, one important aim of Whitehall is ensuring that information is easily accessible by those with no or only basic digital skills. Various outreach programmes run by organisations like the Good Things Foundation or Citizens Online have sought to support people to access online and digital services by providing basic face-to-face training. Funded by NHS Digital, the Widening Digital Participation scheme, for instance, seeks to ensure that people have the skills they need to access relevant health information and services online. Phase 1 of the programme trained 221,941 people to improve their digital health literacy and reached over 380,000 in total to raise awareness of digital health resources.

As the GDC trial demonstrated, using voice assistant technology could drastically help increase this access to information further by removing the technical barriers that still exist. Being able to ask a question and receive a response without having to navigate through websites and webpages to find relevant information holds a lot of potential for people with limited digital skills. The key issue now is to ensure that such devices are able to access information from as wide a range of government sources and services as possible.