The impact of the internet on business and the relative failure of local government to embrace digital were just two of the issues hotly debated at a recent OFCOM event in Belfast. The event brought together senior figures from the public and private sector to discuss the findings from the latest OFCOM report into communications usage in Northern Ireland.
The report provides a very clear picture of the rapidly evolving way we use devices and the internet to research, shop and socialise online. However, it was also highlights how many local businesses are lagging behind when it comes to marketing online and a significantly low percentage of people in NI accessing local government services online.
SME Use of The Internet for Business
The use of the internet to research and purchase goods and services online has witnessed an 8% increase in NI to 68% – up by 8% in one year 2013. The relentless rise in online retail should serve as a wakeup call to the local retail sector, many of whom could be selling online and benefiting from a huge growth area. The recent woes for the retail sector across UK and Ireland are part of a trend in customers shunning the high street. Traditional high street spend has declined from 50% in 2000 to 40% in 2014 and store closures are expected to increase by 22% by 2018.
OFCOM also explores the use of the internet by small to medium sized businesses here. The majority of SMEs are making use of the internet to order goods and services (83%) and make payments (58%). Given the huge impact the internet and social media has had on the ability of businesses to improve efficiency, customer sales and marketing, it surprising that there is such a low investment from local businesses here. Only a minority of businesses are using the internet for marketing and sales (40%) and there is a similar low investment in taking orders and payments online. There is also a stark difference in businesses who have failed to invest in a website presence. Nearly 30% of businesses here do not have a website.
Digital Government in Northern Ireland
The second dominant topic for discussion at the OFCOM briefing event was the relative failure of NI local government and agencies to respond effectively to greater public use of the internet and social media. The OFCOM NI report reveals that the percentage of people using the internet to access local government services is much lower than in Britain.
Faced with an undeniable consumer shift towards greater use of mobile devices, ecommerce and social media, it seems bizarre that so many branches of government here lag behind when it comes to modernising service delivery and communications. While there are a few examples of local organisations that have been proactive in digital communication and marketing, such as Belfast City Council, most local councils here have largely ignored the impact of the internet and social media.
Digital leadership plays a key role in modernising the public sector. The main element in public organisations modernising their service delivery and communications is often the presence of senior staff can encourage change. Unfortunately, conservatism, fear of change and lack of digital leadership have resulted in many local government organisations being stuck in a bygone age.