This is an opinion piece by Laurence Millar and was originally published in our Spring 2019 newsletter.
As government places increasing emphasis on digital services, digital inclusion becomes an essential consideration for officials and their technology partners.
Technology provides the foundation for government to provide and promote the uptake of digital services; this has the potential to reduce operating costs, but only if the services achieve high levels of adoption. Unlike banks and other commercial organisations, government rarely has the option to choose its customers, or make a “digital only” decision, which is available as an option for some G2B services such as land transfer or customs entries.
The risk of adopting “Digital First” for government services that have widespread usage by individuals has been illustrated by Census 2018, where the population response rate fell from 93% to 87%; the fall was even more dramatic for Māori (90% to 74%) and Pasifika (91% to 74%). The independent review found that “the Internet Collection System was secure, stable, and easy to use with over 80% of forms completed online”; however, the overall project did not meet three of its four investment objectives. The first results were published on 23 September 2019, 11 months later than planned.
Digital inclusion means that an individual has Affordable Access, Skills, Confidence, and Motivation to benefit from the digital world. In the last few months, Government has published many papers on Digital Inclusion including a commitment to make a case for investment in Budget 2020. This is essential to ensure that the digitally excluded are able to fully participate, and take advantage of the many benefits of being online.
There is a generally held view that New Zealand is a world leader in digital connectivity – for example the World Internet Project reports that 94% of the population is connected; however, serious concerns have been raised by the methodology underpinning these findings. 30,000 families with school aged children do not have internet access, and it is likely that at least half a million New Zealanders are digitally excluded.
In a double whammy, the groups identified in the Pulse of Our Nation at most risk of digital inclusion also have high levels of interaction with government:
· Families with children in low socio-economic communities
· People living in rural communities
· People with disabilities
· Migrants and refugees with English as a second language
· Māori & Pasifika Youth
· Offenders and ex-offenders
Until digital inclusion is “solved”, and everyone in New Zealander has the access, skills, motivation and confidence to use the internet, government services will not be able to be fully streamlined.
What is needed to eliminate the Digital Inclusion challenge? The current situation has the characteristics of a “market failure”. The digitally excluded are hard to reach, costly to support, and in many cases have bad credit records – not attractive for private sector providers. Spark Foundation launched the JUMP product (a free pre-pay 4G modem for families with school-aged children), but take up has not met targets because the product is high-touch/low revenue.
The business case for government investment is compelling. Digital Inclusion ticks many the whole of life benefits targeted by the wellbeing budget methodology. Research data shows that improvements in employment, education and community provide a substantial return on government investment. In addition when digitally connected, people get a “digital dividend” that UK research estimates as £744, significantly more than the cost of being connected. Getting the last 15% of the population connected needs government intervention in Budget 2020.
What does this mean for New Zealand GovTech projects? Make sure that you include consideration of vulnerable groups when you are building software and platforms. This will involve co-design with groups that may not have a natural seat at the table, so you will need to identify new ways to connect with communities. This responsibility is shared between the government customer and the tech sector provider – when your project is sunk because users are excluded, there is little to be gained from arguing which end of the boat has the hole.
Laurence Millar is a Board Member of NZRise who has more than 35 years experience in the innovative use of technology to support organisational change. He has worked on projects in the government, banking, telecommunications and distribution sectors; and has worked extensively in New Zealand, Asia, the Middle East, Australia, USA and UK/Europe.
He is involved with NZRise because it is the voice of the NZ owned tech sector and has been with us since the start because the cause is important and he thinks he can help make a difference in the transition to a digital nation.
Laurence is the Executive Director of the 20/20 Trust.