In the digital world we often assume that digital access improves access to services. And so it does – for most people in most cases. But not for all in all. Those designing policies and plans for digital access to public (and private) services should remember always that the real aim is access to services not digitalisation.
The positive impact of digital inclusion
It’s obvious that digital access to services – by computer or by phone – has greatly improved access in general – how services can be accessed, by whom, when, with what support – and that this has been especially valuable to those for whom access has been difficult: those in rural areas, the elderly, those with disabilities, users of minority languages and so forth.
Digitalisation of services is, rightly, at the heart of what’s been called “e-governance”. So it should be. Nothing in what follows questions this.
Maximising digital inclusion
To make the most of digital inclusion, researchers and policymakers have tried to identify the barriers and constraints that inhibit people from going online or using online services – whether those are due to connectivity or affordability, language or literacy, social constraints and fears, disability and other causes of marginalisation.
Maximising digital inclusion is, rightly, at the heart of ICT policies worldwide. So it should be. Nothing in what follows questions this.
What I want to question is the idea, and in some cases, practice, that services should be digital by default: only available online or made available offline only with difficulty in order to encourage people to do things online.
That doesn’t serve those who are marginalised; it can increase exclusion and make it more difficult for them to access services. It reduces choice. My point’s that policies for digital access should maintain non-digital access as well.
I’ll illustrate why from the film I Daniel Blake, popular in Britain four years ago.
It follows the experience of an older manual worker who becomes too ill to do the kind of work he’s always done. He’s required to apply for (many) jobs online, and to demonstrate he’s done so; if not, he’ll lose his right to welfare benefits. But he has no digital skills, no digital experience, no ability to apply online; and so, like many others, he’s impoverished by the system’s digital requirements.
The film’s polemical but the point it makes about digitalisation’s relevant regardless. What Daniel Blake experiences is part of a more general trend in Britain and some other countries, where application for welfare benefits and other services is becoming available online only, or available offline only with difficulty.
Enabling digital inclusion
Addressing barriers to digital inclusion by improving digital literacy, building capacity and confidence is, rightly, at the heart of policies designed to address digital exclusion. So it should be. Nothing in what follows questions this.
But it’s not sufficient. If services become digital by default, or are made difficult to access offline, some will be excluded. And those most likely to be excluded will include those who need that access most.
As LSE researcher Ellen Helsper put it in a report for the British government twelve years ago, ‘digital disengagement is a complex compound problem involving cultural, social and attitudinal factors and in some cases informed ‘digital choice’.’
As a result, ‘Designers of government services need to understand that the socially and economically disadvantaged people who could benefit most by accessing their services will be the least likely to (be able to) use electronic means.’ Multi-channel routes to access, including offline routes, remain essential.
I’ll expand a bit on this and make one further point.
Services that respond to service users’ needs
My first point is that services should put service users’ needs before those of service providers. Take welfare benefits, for example. The purpose of the exercise should be to ensure that those who need them get them.
For many users, online access is a great improvement here, but not for all. Not everyone has the desire, the inclination or the ability to go online. Requiring the vulnerable elderly to learn new skills adds stress and anxiety. It isn’t simple for those suffering from depression. Language and literacy constraints are inhibitors to using complex online forms. Familiarity’s important to many vulnerable users – “how things have always been done” – as is human contact.
Some also fear that data gathered online may be used against them, particularly in authoritarian states or where they fear discrimination against ethnic or religious groups.
For some people, particularly amongst the most vulnerable, the barrier of accessing online services is greater than the barrier of accessing them offline. Some therefore fall through the gaps within the system when the system goes digital by default.
The desire to cut costs
This is compounded by the conflicting aims of service providers. Some governments are keener on providing welfare benefits than others. Some are keen to cut the cost of benefits and so to cut the numbers accessing them. Some want to nudge people in the direction of particular behaviours.
Most are keen to cut the costs of managing services more generally, not least in order to cut taxes. For them, the efficiency gains that can be made through digitising are the goal, at best alongside, sometimes rather than service improvements. They bank savings, therefore, rather than making improvements or guaranteeing safeguards.
And safeguards are important when delivering public services. “Computer – or more accurately, algorithm – says no” is a problem most likely to be experienced by those with complex needs and unusual circumstances, once more likely to be those who are most vulnerable. When “computer says no”, it’s very hard for the powerless to get decisions overturned.
The importance of social inclusion
Digital inclusion is massively valuable, but it’s important that it doesn’t reduce social inclusion. For those who are isolated, a shift away from human interaction towards digital interfaces can increase isolation and loneliness.
This can be particularly disorienting for older people whose life experience has been pre-digital. And it’s likely to be accentuated as helplines for online services – some good, some bad – replace real humans with virtual assistants.
Digital algorithms can be more effective in addressing complex problems and needs than human decision-makers, but it’s the combination of the two that’s likely to make decisions better, more responsive and more supportive. People need people more than they need bots.
Digital access to public services has greatly increased access opportunities and convenience. It should be applauded and extended wherever possible. Nothing I have said here challenges this.
But it’s the service that matters more than the digital, and we should not assume that digital suits everyone. Making services digital by default can increase social isolation and marginalisation and make it less likely that those who need it most get what they need.
Access, including digital access, should be about listening to the demand side – to service users – and responding to what works for them, rather than prioritising convenience and efficiency at the cost of welfare. And that means it should be available to those who need it offline as well as those who’re comfortable with going online.
Image by Bibliotecas municipales de Huesca used under Creative Commons license.