With much of the discussion regarding digital services revolving around how governments can develop and adopt modern digital services faster and more comprehensively, one might think that placing additional services online is a universally popular policy approach. However, although the benefits are manifold, not all members of the community are equally enthusiastic or able to participate.
Digital government is not for everyone – yet
Governments around the world are being pushed to develop digital services faster. Many jurisdictions have set up dedicated teams to break away from traditionally long-winded and expensive large government IT developments. Citizen-focused, consumer-grade services that are agile and iterative have become the new black, as agencies try to produce entry points that have slick and easy-to-use interfaces like those of Google and Amazon. This is accompanied by an overarching view that access to digital government services is universally regarded as a good thing, and that the biggest challenge is doing more of the same, but quicker. However, not all citizens share the same rosy view of digital government.
The Australian Government created the Digital Transformation Office (DTO) to drive adoption of digital services in the federal government. DTO is closely modeled on the UK's Government Digital Service (GDS) approach – to the extent that it has ex-GDS executive leadership. As a baseline for its work, it recently surveyed Australians' attitudes to digital government. Although the survey found that citizens want more online access to government services, and for government to increase the speed and quality with which they emulate the best of the private sector, enthusiasm is not universal.
Support for digital government falls significantly with age, with over half of those aged over 65 indicating that they "prefer not to" or "will not" use digital services. There is a similar, if less pronounced, pushback against digital services in regional and remote areas, which is probably a reflection of the difficulties presented by limited or unreliable connectivity. The survey also indicated higher dissatisfaction among lower-income households and those with lower levels of education.
These findings correlate with previous analyses of the factors behind the "digital divide," which have highlighted access, educational level, and income as key determinants. Unfortunately, those with the most to gain from the Internet are often the least likely to be using it. As digital services become more pervasive, and the group of those who are excluded becomes smaller, it is possible that these individuals will suffer even greater exclusion.
Of course, in addition to community pressure for better services, a significant driver for digital government is the cost saving that can be made compared to the use of traditional face-to-face or call center operations for simple, routine interactions.
Governments have a responsibility to provide services that are accessible to all members of society. Agencies will need to ensure digital platforms are as inclusive as possible, and that savings realized by "going digital’ are used to support alternative channels for those less able to follow the digital path.
DTO Transformation Index Monitor Baseline Report 2015. Available from https://www.dto.gov.au/sites/g/files/net261/f/DTO-Transformation-Index-Monitor-Baseline-Report_0.doc?v=1440125719 [Accessed September 4, 2015]
Al Blake, Principal Analyst, Public Sector