Originally published on April 1, 2013 as Matching Technological Literacy with Delivery of Government Services.
I have a neighbor, let’s call him John. I’ve know him for more than 20 years. He’s been very close to our family all that time. He’s seen our children grow up. He’s helped my wife deal with household disasters when I’ve been traveling on business. I even rousted him out of bed one morning when I saw that his roof was on fire. He’s a sharp guy and carries on an interesting conversation on just about any topic you can think of.
But he doesn’t own a computer or a cell phone. Never has. Oh, he’s talked about it every now and then. Every couple of years or so he and I have a serious discussion about what kind of computer he should buy and what kind of services he’ll need to get Internet access. But he never does anything about it, and that’s alright with me. As connected as my family and I are, John seems to be doing fine and will probably be doing fine for a long time.
At least I hope so. I thought about John when I read the BBC news article about the British government titled “Government warned over ‘them and us’ online services.” The gist of the report, which is probably applicable to the US as well, is that (a) certain types of online government services are a lot cheaper to provide than personal services, but (b) we need to still make personal and face-to-face services available to the elderly or disabled or to anyone who might choose not to make personal information available online.
Why bring this up? I can envision a time, perhaps it’s already upon us, when cash-strapped government agencies intentionally push citizens to use online services whether they like it or not. Some services can be made cheaper that way and back-office support can be provided at central locations far away from the point of contact. We shouldn’t be surprised when this happens, given the reluctance of so many politicians to raise revenue. The move to digital services for those capable of taking advantage makes eminently good sense, given the success of online service providers in the commercial world.
Still, there will be those citizens who are unwilling or unable to go “all digital.” An allowance for them will have to be made. But how? Charge them more for personalized services? Make them wait longer? Just make the overall experience more unpleasant? All these options are possible and we all probably are aware of such examples playing out already.
There’s a more serious concern we should also be aware of in addition to how available services are. That is, how sophisticated or knowledgeable do people have to be to take advantage of government services?
One area where this issue might be occurring is with the “open government” movement initiated by the Obama administration. Even though Administration efforts have been criticized as being incomplete in many cases, numerous instances have occurred where government agencies are becoming, objectively speaking, more open with the public about their operations.
The primary vehicle for this improved openness has been the web. Agencies have improved the usability of their websites, data about government activities are being made available via operations such as Data.gov, and more openness about the performance of government programs is being provided by operations such asPerformance.gov. What’s not to like about this picture?
One concern is that, as more services move to the web, citizens will not only need web access, they will also need technical and intellectual skills to take advantage of the service.
I’m not referring here just to simple transactions like finding the phone number of a government department or paying a traffic ticket online via a credit card. I’m referring to more complex transactions like settling an estate, bidding on a contract for government services, or researching the impact a new government facility will have on traffic flow in your neighborhood. These are complex activities.
As we “move up the complexity food chain” in how we interact with government services — as an example, see the Department of Veterans Affair’s “Blue Button” initiative — the need for specialized knowledge on the part of the citizen increases. As the complexity of the interaction increases, so too does the number of different departments and systems increase that need to be involved with the citizen interaction. Automating support for more complex interactions also becomes more complex and costly, while at the same time the need still exists for government agencies to provide parallel-operating human mediated services in these situations that warrant it.
None of this is new. Anyone involved in automating front-and back-office services for private or public sector operations will already be aware of such realities. One possibility now is that, as more people become accustomed to interacting with individuals and organizations via sophisticated smartphones and tablet computer apps, expectations about how much of government services provision might become unrealistically inflated, especially by those looking for ways to cut government costs.
But I keep coming back to the need of people like my neighbor John. If he were suddenly forced to interact with one or more computer systems to engage with a government agency about a complex problem, what is he going to do? Will it be enough for him to go to the local public library where public access systems seem to be busy around the clock already? If he needs help, who will help him? The public library staff? The cash-strapped agency itself? A voluntary advocacy group of some kind?
Asking such questions now is not unrealistic. We’re already seeing the impacts of federal budget sequestration on some government services where members of the public and local governments are being recruited to pitch in to substitute for furloughed government staff and contractors.
Assume, for example, that such cuts become permanent and the underlying operational data of struggling government programs become accessible in real time to “citizen hackers” with the knowledge and time available to build service interfaces to enable public participation. Might such voluntarism be welcomed because it — potentially — augments services provided by overworked government staff? Or will it be resisted because it encroaches on the legal and statutory responsibilities of the agency?
Is this a “slippery slope” leading to government abdication of its responsibilities? Or is it evidence that the nature of both democracy and public service are changing as powerful computer software and networks become accessible and manageable in a shared fashion by distributed groups?
I hope it’s more of the latter than the former. I’m concerned that, given how our political processes work, they tend to favor the loud and well organized. Will this also be true of the ability citizens will have to interact electronically with government services? Will more sophisticated and well-off citizens, comfortable with using technology on a daily basis, be able to avail themselves of both formal and informal support services needed to interact with government? Will those who are less well-off, or those with little experience in day-to-day use technology, be left behind to fend for themselves?
One solution is that, when designing government programs and services, care must be taken to incorporate a wide range of stakeholder capabilities and needs. Design requirements must be extended to include a range of interaction models all the way from face-to-face through substantial automation.
One possible model is the way some corporations handle customer support for complex products and services via an integrated set of manual and automated processes that are matched with the needs and situation of the user. We already have explicit guidelines covering health data privacy protection and computer system accessibility for disabled, handicapped, and hearing and sight impaired.
Perhaps it is time to become more explicit about planning how citizens can interact with government given varying levels of technological literacy and technological sophistication.