A new PwC survey confirms that while more citizens are using digital channels to access government services, many vulnerable citizens are at risk of being left behind – further compounding their social and economic disadvantage. Government can address this by focusing on three major barriers to digital inclusion: access, affordability, and ability.
Australians’ reliance on technology is growing by the day. Indeed, PwC’s recent Citizen Survey 2022 found the use of government services via digital channels has shot up in the past 18 months.
Our survey contained encouraging news for government leaders – as well as some food for thought.
On the upside, a growing number of citizens (43%) say that digital services help them feel connected. A similar number agree that government digitisation has made services more accessible.
More concerning, however, are indications that Australia’s digital divide is widening. One third of citizens now feel left behind by technology (up from about one quarter in June 2020).
Digital barriers have social and economic consequences
Disadvantaged Australians face several barriers to digital inclusion. This exacerbates other forms of social exclusion such as access to health services, employment opportunities and education.
According to the 2021 Australian Digital Inclusion Index, more than one in ten Australians remain highly excluded. This translates to about 2.8 million Australians – equivalent to almost the entire population of Brisbane.
Informed by PwC’s work with governments and communities, this article outlines how to deliver services more equitably. Crucially, we recommend tackling three barriers to digital inclusion: access, affordability, and ability.
1. Digital access allows Australians to fully participate in society
“Digital access” is the ability to use digital technologies to fully participate in society. Our Citizen Survey 2022 found that while 44% agree the government has made the internet more accessible for all citizens, about 1 in 5 citizens disagree.
Digital access is often determined by socioeconomic factors (e.g. income, education, geography). Digitally marginalised groups include many remote/rural residents, those living with a disability, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The digital divide reflects the often patchy, unreliable, or entirely absent internet and mobile coverage in many rural and remote areas
State and federal governments are investing to increase coverage. Meanwhile, communities are establishing shared local internet access points, provided by government or other sources. To make further progress, government can pursue several strategies:
- Engage with local community leaders to understand their aspirations for new technologies and tailor solutions to each community’s individual needs.
- Share the success of community-led initiatives across states and territories – then seek to iterate, expand, and scale these.
- Consider opportunities to co-invest with industry and remove red tape to deliver connectivity where it’s most needed.
- Work with industry to find innovative solutions to internet connection (e.g. leveraging satellite technology or PPPs with other organisations to expand networks).
- Ensure services work in ‘offline mode’; where citizens can upload/download information as and when they have access (e.g. through apps). And make more content downloadable.
2. Direct and indirect ways to overcome affordability barriers
In our Citizen Survey 2022, almost one in five (18%) respondents did not agree that access to phone and mobile data is affordable. When digital access is not affordable, individuals and communities are more likely to face barriers such as unreliable internet service and limited access to devices. This, in turn, hampers their education, employment, and health prospects.
In some remote communities, everybody in a single household may depend on a single device for internet access which limits access to vital online services and poses privacy risks.
Government can go further to address affordability by:
- Increasing awareness/ease of access to low-cost services for low-income groups (e.g. charities providing free data/second-hand devices).
- Working with telcos to exclude critical services from usage charges.
- Tailoring fixed line and mobile service packages for vulnerable groups.
- Developing digital services that allow multi-users.
- Optimising services for mobile use.
- Testing to ensure services work on both newer and older technologies.
- Optimising development for low data consumption.
3. Ways to bring all Australians on the digital journey
Australians need to maintain existing skills while keeping pace with the influx of new technologies. The correlation between digital ability and education, income, and age reveals a gap where those who are not engaging with technology through work and/or education have fewer opportunities to maintain/improve digital skills.
The 2021 Australian Digital Inclusion Index demonstrated only 14% of highly excluded Australians improved their digital skills recently. Furthermore, our Citizen Survey 2022 indicated that a lack of trust in government can be a major cause of exclusion.
Governments are tackling digital literacy through tailored programs for specific groups and addressing long-term education opportunities to expand Australians’ STEM skills. To consolidate that, agencies can join forces to:
- Establish, fund, and contribute to digital literacy programs for at-risk groups.
- Support and scale programs to enable digital upskilling for those excluded from employment or education (such as Be Connected).
- Leverage the not-for-profit sector to deliver tailored digital courses for community sectors (e.g. vision impaired, low literacy).
- Provide opportunities for excluded citizens to participate in the technology workforce/education to integrate digital upskilling into daily life.
- Enable people with lived experience to co-design government services.
- Make it simpler for citizens to nominate someone to manage their digital affairs on their behalf.
- Provide education/support that grows understanding of privacy, cyber risks and safety (e.g. scams, identity theft).
- Ethical engineering to manage for unintended consequences.
Right now, we have a unique opportunity to enhance the prospects of disadvantaged Australians. Government has made significant progress in innovating services and now, through digital inclusion strategies, we can ensure all citizens share in the benefits of this hard work.