Is the “open government” movement’s emphasis on technology creating two classes of citizens based on technological literacy?

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, and more openness about the performance of government programs is being provided by operations such 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.

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Stefan Czerniawski

You are absolutely right to argue that a simple ‘do everything online’ approach to government cannot be the whole answer, and that those who appear to be advocating it do themselves no favours. But a generation ago, I suspect you could have written a version of your post substituting the word ‘telephone’ for ‘computer’ and ‘internet. Back then, the idea of making government services accessible by phone was sometimes as controversial as making them accessible online is now. So I think we need to separate two kinds of change: John as an individual may always live in a pre-internet world, and we can collectively choose to respect his choice. But society is changing, and over time John will become increasingly untypical – the alien and unfamiliar become obvious and normal quite quickly (for examples see But as I wrote back in 2009 (

That leaves two big problems for service designers and providers:

  • how do you design services which take account of the new possibilities and the preferences of a new generation of customers?
  • how do you manage a continuum which runs from people who only ever even turn on a mobile phone if there is an emergency to those Ahonen describes texting every few minutes of every waking hour of every day?

Or, putting those two questions together in a different way, how do we sustain the current delivery model for those who still need it while building the capability of doing things very differently?

Andrew Krzmarzick

I like Stefan’s questions to frame the conversation and wonder if there is something we can learn from previous transitions that involve technology. Do you continue to add new technology to the current portfolio of available citizen engagement approaches (seems like it might be costly)…and when do you phase out a technology that is used less often?

Scott Horvath

This is quite timely for me, actually. The other day, I had some questions posed to me by another employee who referred to herself as “an old dog” with respects to social media. She does not have a personal social media account (no Facebook, no Twitter, etc). However, she’s very aware that more and more Government services and general information are being offered through social media sites. She said that she wanted to get more up to date information from folks like OPM…but keeps hearing that the most up-to-date information for many agencies is through social media.

However, she wasn’t comfortable setting up an account because she prefers not to have that public presence online.

Government is at a place in time where it must continually strive to be more efficient each day. The political and budgetary nature of Government as well as the growing societal expectations of citizens both compels them, and in other cases forces them, to move services online. However, moving them online is not enough…they must have solid design and interaction tests performed on all of them otherwise they will make accessing services even harder for both tech-enabled and tech-reserved. Moving government services online, though, is a necessity.

There’s still a significantly sized portion of citizens, like “John,” and the woman I mentioned, who are not connected for whatever reason. They deserve the same access that those online can receive. Does it cost more to ensure that there’s an offline method for accessing these government services? Certainly. Is it a necessity to have these offline access methods still…absolutely.

Government services need to build in the cost…somehow…of both online and offline access. We can’t deny citizens the ability to interact with their government simply b/c they choose to not have a computer or cell phone. So services will need to continue offering multiple avenues of access. Over time, it’s likely that the need for those alternative offline avenues will fade…but only with continued measurement of their use can that be determined.

Note: All of this is of my own opinion and not that of my employer.

Dennis McDonald

Great comments, Scott, Andrew, and Stefan! One of the things I’ve noticed about “connectedness” is that it comes in many flavors:

  • Some folks are comfortable with TV and automobiles but not computers.
  • Some are comfortable with computers for basic office processes but aren’t into the Web.
  • Some use the Web (and Google) but are not into social media.
  • Some use social media but don’t know the first thing about database management and/or data analysis.
  • Some are thoroughly comfortable with data and databases and can analyze rings around downloaded data files using sophisticated statistical and modeling tools, but they then have a hard time explaining what they’re doing in plain English (or whatever language they’re working in at the time).

I don’t have any data proving that a “progression” exists like this. I just think there are many levels of sophistication to take into account when designing services, especially when the goal is to save money. It’s not unusual for folks to just scratch the surface when it comes to accessing all the power and flexibility of smartphones and tablet computers. Once we get beyond making basic fact retrieval and file access a feature of online services, we really do need to take into account the varying levels of sophistication of the target audiences, and that goes way beyond just waiting for all us old fogies to die off!.

Henry Brown

Excellent blog/commentary! …

I believe I have been through a very similar process in the 1980’s when personal computers were being introduced into the work place.

Can remember all the effort required to enable/encourage people to use a PC, and on the personal level the pagers. And depending on the skill level providing the right hardware/software so the productivity could be at the very least be maintained and in the ideal situation the productivity was increased significantly.

Around some organizations the “mind set” was why even provide PC’s. Other organizations decided that everyone would have exactly the same PC (including software) And a few organizations made, at least, some effort to provide the best tools available to those who could make maximum use of them.

In the private sector, the option to forget about the “Luddites“, who were extremely productive team members, was not an option. What I and others did in this case was train until “the chickens came home” and encourage the sharing of the success of the “power users” In some cases these fine people actually retired some 10 years later still using a IBM Selectric and a calculator.
Those people who were willing to innovate and positively affect the company’s bottom line were often rewarded with more “powerful” PC’s which enabled them to be even more productive.

In the public sector was somewhat easier to bring everyone up to a minimum level of competency by simply using the budget ax and not expending any more money on calculators and electric typewriters. IMO the biggest problem in the public sector was convincing the “main-frame” people that it was to their advantage to “farm out” the computing, and getting these people to accept that employee x could actually make their job easier by enabling employee x with powerful (at least at the time) PC’s.

In hind site these main framers were correct in fearing for the future of their jobs but who would have known at the time, except maybe Steve Jobs or Rod Canion and a few others.

Dennis McDonald

Henry, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I remember “green screens” and how some call center staff fought to keep them in the face of the move to windowed interfaces. “Old hands” could demonstrate incontrovertibly that command line interfaces were much quicker and could help shave seconds off call response times. Newer staff without years of experience preferred the new windowed interfaces because they incorporated more menuing and help, even if they were slower and bulkier. Guess who won?

There has always been resistance to technology though I think a lot has to do with the impact on associated business processes not the technology itself. One of the things we may be seeing today that is different from years past is that the nature of work might actually be changing somewhat. A lot of earlier generations’ adoption of technology really had to do with doing the same things more/better/faster, especially when the underlying processes were primarily repetitive or manual. Now we have devices and systems in hand that are inherently more collaborative and decentralized. Shared action and shared decisionmaking capabilities are fundamantally different features that are not just the scaling up of what people have always done in small groups. Adapting to this scenario might involve more flexibility and creativity than just recognizing that a computer can help you do a job faster.

William Thomas

Do we have numbers on this?

How many Americans do not have a computer?

How many have slow dial-up internet access?

How many are well connected with broadband?

Such numbers should drive decision making.

Dennis McDonald

William, I certainly agree those are important questions, but they are questions about the “plumbing” needed to support digital access. Megan’s video emphasizes, on the other hand, the important of literacy, financial knowledge, and legal expertise. Even as we continue to expand the quality of our digital infrastructure we shouldn’t let the fact that “access to the plumbing” is sufficient for people to engage with government services.