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E-government for older people: Not So Easy To Help Yourself?

By Tristan Parker

Some council websites present elderly users with a range of problems which prevent them taking full advantage of the opportunities to access their local services online, according to new research from the University of Hertfordshire. This is a problem for older people, and a problem for councils too, since citizen ‘self-service’ over council websites is seen as a key way of helping local authorities save money on face to face services, crucial in these times of heavy public sector budget cuts.

‘An e-government case study of London’s older citizens’ was led by Dr Jyoti Choudrie, head of the university’s Systems Management Research Unit (SyMRU) ( http://bit.ly/e9utoc ), and Vivian Songonuga, a research student and staff member at the Royal National Institute of Blind People. It examined 30 local government sites across London, plus 179 questionnaire responses and a further series of focus group interviews.

“When we look at local authorities we don’t always think about their websites”, Choudrie told E-Access Bulletin. “So, we decided to look at a particular group of citizens – elderly people – to see how local government sites are helping these people with their daily requirements.”

The initial part of the study involved finding out the main uses of the internet for elderly people, and then examining how well local authority sites served these needs.

The most popular use for council websites was to find out information about council services in the area, with 79% of respondents using local authority sites for this purpose. It was also found that many elderly people were keen to get as much detail as possible about these services, such as location, the name of a council member to contact, etc.

However, a number of issues were identified that hindered elderly people from using the sites. These included lengthy load times for web pages, and broken links that direct users to ‘dead’ pages (particularly in the FAQs section).

When broken down into more detailed focus group interviews, further barriers began to appear. A focus group of 14 people revealed that only four found the internet to be a useful social tool, and only five of the 14 found it to be a time-saving device.

Examining physical problems or disabilities which may hamper internet use among elderly people, the research found that 73% (121 respondents) had no disabilities, while the most commonly highlighted issues were those related to the hands (such as arthritis or motor disabilities), which affected 14% of respondents (23), and visual impairments, which affected 6% of respondents (10 people).

An additional interesting finding from this area of the research was that due to a large number of the elderly respondents living in extended family groups or residing in the same home as offspring and grandchildren, some of the internet use reported was actually based largely around these younger generations using the internet ‘for’ the elderly residents, rather than the elderly engaging in direct and extended use.

“This is something that previous research has also identified” says Choudrie. “We may be promoting use of the internet among older people, but we need to consider very carefully – is this use being sustained, and how are [elderly people] sustaining it?”

The study also makes a number of recommendations to encourage use of council websites among the elderly. As well as championing an overall simplification of website functionality, “More computer training centres for the elderly and silver surfer clubs should be set up”, says Choudrie. “We found that secondary schools and computer labs could be used as extra venues for evening and weekend computer training courses.

“Also, we thought that councils could look at financial discounts for elderly people who use council services online. Even if it is only a nominal amount, it could be an incentive for elderly people.”

Following on from that, the study points out that many of its elderly respondents considered computers to be expensive, and that offering free second-hand or reconditioned computers may again be an incentive for these users.

NOTE: ‘An e-government case study of London’s older citizens’ is currently awaiting publication. Dr Choudrie will be chairing a roundtable discussion on its findings at E-Access ’11, hosted by E-Access Bulletin publisher Headstar, in London on June 28:
http://bit.ly/f3tZbH

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