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How Can Digital Government Connect Citizens Without Leaving the Disconnected Behind? Part 1

(Editor’s note: This story is part 1 in a series. You can read part 2 here.)

In a world contending with the impact of ongoing disruption, governments face increasingly difficult challenges as they seek to balance fiscal, economic and social pressures with the need to provide better outcomes for all, as well as those who live within national borders.

Among U.S. respondents, 67% believe the COVID-19 pandemic will increase the use of technology in our daily lives.

To help governments and public agencies gain a deeper understanding of how these upheavals are changing the public and its perceptions of government, EY has launched Connected Citizens. This new initiative features a global survey of citizens in 12 countries to assess how their expectations of government and public services are changing.

Given the events of last year, the survey asked a number of questions related to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Not surprisingly, the survey found that amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, people said they were most concerned about whether their basic needs were being met, from access to high-quality health care to a sense of safety in their community.

The pandemic also accelerated our reliance on technology, which was reflected in the survey results: 64% of respondents said they expect to make even more use of technology in the future than if the pandemic had not happened. Among U.S. respondents, 67% believe the COVID-19 pandemic will increase the use of technology in our daily lives.

At the same time, while governments have accelerated the shift toward the digitalization of many public services, they continue to lag behind parts of the private sector, such as online shopping and banking, in terms of meeting expectations for online service delivery. Governments still have a way to go on their digital journey to bridge that gap, particularly in the U.S. where they face additional challenges in their efforts to serve a digitally engaged citizenry.

6 key takeaways from the U.S. findings

1. Most Americans are focused on basic needs and security as the foundation of their quality of life.

Not surprisingly, the global pandemic lowered satisfaction for many Americans, with a 16-point decline — from 76% to 60% — in the percentage of those who said they were satisfied with their quality of life. This carried across income segments, with only 50% of those in the lowest group saying they were satisfied. In the top income slot, satisfaction dropped from 90% to 69%.

The pandemic crisis also placed basic needs top of mind for Americans. Across the board, they said financial security, safety and access to quality health care had the most important influences on their quality of life. Looking ahead, Americans said a strong national economy and secure, well-paid employment ranked closely behind.

2. Technology is playing a more pervasive role in American lives, but this doesn’t necessarily carry over to online government services.

Americans have embraced technology. Nearly 95% say they are online every day: shopping, staying in touch with friends and following the news. While the majority anticipate that technology will have a positive impact on how they access entertainment and educate their children, few extend that optimism to improving their access to government and the public sector. Only 29% said they used the internet to access government services before the pandemic. (Would that percentage have remained the same during the pandemic?)

3. In many ways, the private sector has outpaced American government and public sector services in joining digital ecosystems.

While more than 7 in 10 Americans report using the internet regularly for personal activities, less than 1 in 3 use the internet to access government services. In fact, only 46% of Americans believe that the U.S. government was effective in its use of digital technology in responding to the pandemic, slightly below the global average of the countries surveyed. Moreover, only 45% of Americans expect that technological developments will have a positive impact on government services.

4. With technology, there is a tension between exciting possibilities and concerns about social pitfalls and privacy.

Some 71% of the Americans surveyed believe that technology makes life better. Almost as many (68%) also see a role for technology in helping to help solve future problems. However, many are split on the impact of technology on several topics.

For example, on social inequality, one in three think technology will lead to greater inequality in society and elevate the influence of the already rich and powerful. On the other hand, a similar percentage, 33%, believe technology will lead to more equality. In addition, some 4 in 10 Americans (41%) believe technology companies should be subject to strong government regulation, while less than a quarter (23%) believe “technology companies should be free to operate as they see fit.” Many Americans are also concerned about privacy, with 48% saying they are uncomfortable sharing personal data online with the government.

5. Deficits in digitalization and trust show potential avenues to develop stronger relationships with citizens.

While many Americans are still skeptical of online government services, 35% say that making more use of online and digital technologies to provide public services should rank as one of the top three priorities for governments to improve quality of services. At the same time, they also expressed discomfort with giving government more access to personal data to improve efficiencies, particularly selling personal data to the private sector. Simply put, they lack overall trust in local and national government, with only 43% and 27%, respectively, saying they trust those institutions.

6. Americans want to increase their knowledge of and participation in local public services.

A significant majority of Americans are willing to get more involved in public service design and delivery, with 66% saying they want to increase their knowledge of the provision of government services, their participation in it, or both. To that end, digital technology enablement holds strong potential with respect to citizen engagement and participation. More than six in 10 Americans report they’d be likely to connect with their local governments through online voting and apps for certain purposes.

This article touches on the challenges facing governments in the U.S. as we offer a detailed breakdown of the survey results. You can read part 2 of this series here.

Chris Estes is the Finance, Operations & Technology Leader for the US SLED at EY. He served as North Carolina’s Secretary and CIO for the Department of Information Technology. As a member of the governor’s cabinet, he provided oversight of information systems projects, managed IT services for state agencies, local governments, and schools. He was an Executive Committee Director for the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO). He also chaired NASCIO’s National Innovation Community. He is a recipient of North Carolina Order of the Long Leaf Pine and several CIO of the Year Awards.

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Photo credit: Julian Wan on Unsplash

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