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What’s holding back uptake of next-gen public services?

Although moving more government services online can reap great benefits, it can also end up excluding older people and migrants if government does not provide sufficient assistance, argues a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Based on data from a survey on problem solving in technology-rich environments, Adults, Computers and Learning: What’s the Problem? argues that while putting more services online can encourage more people to make the effort to learn the necessary ICT skills to engage with government, “initiatives designed to make the internet the default medium of access to and interaction with public administrations may run the risk of excluding certain subgroups of the population unless alternative access points are provided and websites are designed to be used by adults with low literacy, numeracy or ICT skills.”

Older people, those with less formal education, and those from non-English speaking backgrounds are less likely to possess the skills to take advantage of e-government services, says the report — though there is significant variability between countries as to how strongly affected these groups tend to be.

Scandinavian countries lead the world in this area, thanks in part to a high employment rate among older citizens, as well as good vocational training systems for low-skilled or unemployed workers, migrants and refugees.  Denmark, for example, has shown a “remarkable increase” in the use of the internet for interacting with public authorities, the OECD notes: in 2008, 49% of Danish adults used e-government services; in 2013, this was 85%.

Governments “need to consider the level of their population’s skills when developing initiatives to deliver services and information through digital technologies and networks,” remarks the report. It recommends profiling groups who do not use the internet so assistance can be targeted towards their needs, arguing that “government agencies that interact with the public could take a more active role in encouraging and supporting the adults who are not yet comfortable using ICT.”

Adults, Computers and Learning reiterates the advice of the 2009 Re-thinking E-government Services OECD report on how to improve service design:

“…these services need to be more focused on user needs in order to be successful. Among other things, the report recommends the use of a simple organisation of e-government websites and common architectures across all content areas for navigation and search within websites. Such changes would make it easier for people with low proficiency in computer skills to use e-government websites. Without such effort, government services can create a digital divide among the citizens. Government policies need to be carefully designed to bridge the gap between those with access to and the ability to use the services and those without such capacity.

“Once a sufficient level of proficiency is reached among the population, governments can then begin to require e-government use, which strongly encourages all adults to develop at least minimal levels of proficiency in problem solving using ICT. Denmark has taken this approach with respect to some e-government services, including mandatory registration of unemployed adults on a public website for job-seekers and mandatory use of electronic transfers for all government payments. This approach is only feasible in a country whose citizens have high levels of proficiency in computer skills.”

Low-use groups in Australia

As for Australia, “we know for a fact now there are a few groups who don’t have access to internet, either because of their income or for other reasons,” says Australian Communication Consumer Action Network CEO Teresa Corbin.

92% of the Australian population use the internet, according to a 2014 Australian Communication and Media Authority survey. ACMA found that 100% of respondents aged 18-44 had gone online in the previous six months, while 68% of those aged 65 and over had done so.

70% of adults who are not online are aged 65 and over, while 83% have an annual income of less than $30,000, says ACMA.

Remote communities tend to have low access rates, but it’s not all due to availability: according to 2006 census data, just 2.2% of Indigenous households in central Australia had internet access, compared with 57% of non-Indigenous people in the same region. In the 2011 census, 63% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander households reported having an internet connection, up from 40% in 2006.

“We found that 50% on low incomes can’t afford internet at all,” Corbin told The Mandarin. “It’s about both affordability and familiarity with technology.”

‘It’s really important to use plain language’

Even for those who do have internet access, usability can be constrained. “People wonder whether you need a fast internet speed for a lot of services, and that will come down to the design of the portals and services,” she said. Ensuring a low financial threshold for engagement is important for low-income groups.

“There are also issues for people living with a disability, though moving government services online could be a great enabler if the sites and access points are well designed,” thinks Corbin.

Although the implementation of the Web Accessibility National Transition Strategy, a plan to make websites more accessible, has taken longer than expected, she says it’s a positive sign that some of the people working on the strategy have moved across into the high-profile Digital Transformation Office, hopefully giving it an accessibility focus from the start.

Accessibility needs to be at the front of design, she argues. It’s one thing to design services so that people can access them in the first place, but it’s also about making sure technology is as easy and intuitive to use as possible.

Another group that struggles with internet literacy is small business. “It’s not that they can’t learn,” says Corbin, “but they don’t have the time. We’ve done some work about how many are online, and a lot have websites and Facebook, but there are a significant proportion who don’t use the internet at all.  A lot of them are struggling from a digital literacy point of view.

“There needs to be more understanding that while a lot of these things might seem quite straightforward to some people, it’s very complicated to others.”

Government training programs help, as do “some quite good programs happening with Telstra and libraries” to improve access, though “there needs to be more of it,” says Corbin.

Allowing individual users to select layout preferences may improve accessibility, she points out — allowing blind people to turn off images and use only text, for example.

“And it’s really important to use plain language. Lots of whizbangery is not necessarily useful. It might look great to some of us, but doesn’t increase ease of use.

“Time and money spent getting this part right will reap tenfold in investment,” Corbin argues, because people who are encouraged by positive experiences using online portals will continue to use them, avoiding the need for more expensive alternatives.

It would be a good idea to identify from user responses agencies that are doing this well and learn from those cases, she suggests. ACANN has received “good feedback” about the Do Not Call Register website, as one example.

Another is the Business Victoria website, which won a Webby award earlier this year for its customer-centred design. Designed and developed by Melbourne-based agency Thick, the site was made simpler, eliminating unnecessary images and options and cutting loading time by 17%. The number of visitors has since grown by 20%.

CAPTCHAs ‘incredibly bad’

An additional barrier to accessibility is the use of CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart, a security feature that commonly appears as a series of distorted letters and numbers), which is “incredibly bad for people who have vision impairments to navigate”, Corbin says. The audio version is “not that good” either, though thankfully there are a range of other options websites can use.

A lot of government websites already use CAPTCHA, but she recommends newer ones avoid it. “Much better than having to retrofit would be designing the site well in the first place.”

Asked about the early signs coming out of the DTO, Corbin is cautiously optimistic:

“There are potentially great benefits that the government sees and a lot of people would see with a digital-first strategy. Everyone’s excited for Digital Transformation Office.

“We’re pleased that people from National Transition Strategy have moved across to the DTO, but at this point in time it’s wait and see. We’ll contact them once they have more staff on board and engage with them. We hope there’ll be lots of community engagement. It’s early days.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.