OpenGov: Leaving Thousands of Citizens Behind?

Q: How do we bridge the digital divide – that ignominious gap between people who enjoy ready access to web-based and mobile technology and those who lack such resources?

This question is a little explored, but critical element of President Obama’s Open Government initiative.
One possible answer was presented in my local newspaper last weekend in an article entitled, “Free Internet connects poor to world of opportunities.”
An excerpt:
“Downtown Raleigh’s Chavis Heights neighborhood boasts a perk that would be a plum in any community, but all the more so in public housing: universal broadband Internet access for all residents.
Unlimited e-mailing and Internet surfing are privileges few here could afford until last fall, when this low-income subsidized housing community was turned into a free WiFi hotspot.”
This effort to link low-income citizens to the Internet is not new. In fact, Chavis Heights is but the latest community in a decade-long project called One Economy, a global non-profit that “leverages the power of technology and connects underserved communities around the world to vital information that will improve their lives.”
But there’s just one problem.
Internet access alone is not enough. The article continues: “…even zero-cost Internet is not enough to turn all low-income residents into cyber-citizens. The uptake rate among residents isn’t measured, but it’s estimated to be less than half the households.”
These same folks can’t afford computers on a $12,000 a year income.
Sure, we can donate our used laptops and refurbished machines, but there are many reasons why you and I are upgrading our old PCs.
So free Internet might be one answer to the question. But it’s not enough and before we travel too much further down this #OpenGov or #Gov20 road, we ought to give ample time and energy to answering my initial question:
How do we bridge the digital divide – that ignominious gap between people who enjoy ready access to web-based and mobile technology and those who lack such resources?
Otherwise, we will perpetuate a country where wealthy, well-educated citizens make decisions on behalf of low-income folks who lack access to the process.
For me, that flies in the face of the basic intentions of a government that is more transparent, participatory and collaborative.

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Martha Garvey

Thanks for discussing this. This is a topic that *obsesses* me. It makes me itchy when I am at some Gov 2.0 or new media conference, and I hear some version of, “You know how *everybody* is always checking his/her [mobile device].”

Lots of people you know is still not everybody. It’s not even a good random sample. Yes, lots of people pay for everything online. And some folks mail their bills. Still others actually pay in cash at physical place. And they are all citizens, and deserve to be informed.

Sometimes transparency is still going to mean a poster on a bulletin board. We need to factor that in.

There are some profound political and economic implications in the idea of government transparency. I am glad you brought this up.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Exactly, Martha…and this isn’t just low-income folks…but people in rural areas with limited access…and senior citizens who have the time, but not the access…and I could go on and on.

OpenGov as it currently exists is not for everybody…but I think that’s the ultimate goal, and we should be talking more about how this initiative expands the tent for more participants.

Andrea Di Maio

Great observation. It is time to take openess off the digerati’s table. But it is not ony about disadvantaged people. There are plenty of people who regularly access the Internet, who just don’t give a damn about government, because it’s boring. All this open govt galore is benefiting a minuscule percentage of people, most of whom having vested interests in policy-making and the machinery of government.


I’ve addressed this before in terms of “glamorizing govt”..making it cool to be part of OpenGov. We can’t use the internet for that, or maybe we can, but as a secondary channel. The very poor and disadvantage do still watch tv, read newspapers and listen to the radio in their cars. That is the way to reach them, perhaps via celebs who talk about how to get involved, etc. but certainly by focusing on issues that hit close to home. Family law, estate law, EEO, cleaning up our oceans and rivers..whatever is likely to be something that impacts them directly….

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Martha and Andrew: When I was working at GSA to support the President’s [Clinton] Y2K Date Change Team, we developed a community guide to help people prepare personally for interruptions in banking, prescriptions, and other daily living activities. To help spread this information as far as possible, we teamed up with the American Library Association to help us tap into their communication network among the nation’s libraries. Our reasoning is that every community has some sort of access to a local library. This could possibly be a distribution channel for open government.

Karen Anne Malkin

Good point. Also, keep in mind, some people do not want to communicate with gov’t via technology and prefer face to face or phone contact.

Bryan Conway JD, PMP

I think that in the future, the great divider between the “haves” and the “have nots” will be technological proficiency, which will barely surpass the current divider, education (of course the two go hand in hand in many cases). I have seen it in action – in considering a candidate for a position in a previous government position I held, a highly educated candidate was passed over because he did not possess adequate computer skills. While very intelligent, he was of little use if he didn’t have proficiency with a basic office productivity suite.

Initiatives to provide low income earners access to technology should be considered whenever possible. I think that in the not too distant future, there will be a much lower “digital ceiling” which will greatly limit the upward mobility of those lacking IT skills.

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Andrea – Agreed on the number of people who are benefiting from the movement – very small percentage of population. And not really important to my middle class parents in Davenport, IA. But could be, if combining digital efforts with traditional means to drive new levels of engagement…it’s no longer boring when a new highway is being proposed 3 blocks from your home…and you don’t learn about it until you encounter the detour sign.

@Megan – Not sure about making gov glamorous…still might make it feel detached. I’d rather see a targeted campaign that positions government as “our neighbors, our loved ones…you?”

@Karen – Yeah…I fear that Gov 2. 0 and Open Gov are becoming inextricably linked…both being about technology…when open gov has a lot more to do with sociology!

@Bryan – Or the whole way we educate will not be teaching about the technology, but educating with the technology such that proficiency is a de facto part of learning and operating in society? Of course, then we need to make sure our educators are up to speed…

Henry Brown

This is a battle that IMO is going to be fought until my grandchildren retire, and perhaps beyond.

What it really boils down to is it is EXTREMELY difficult to involve someone in the government process if their primary concern is survival…

Does anyone think for a minute that any significant percentage of the fine people, who live in the area directly impacted by the Gulf Oil Disaster, could really care about the progress of current financial recovery bill in Washington.

About 3 months ago the state held several meetings here in Huntsville to get input on how “we” could implement the “rural broadband Initiatives” Other than 1 or 2 local (Huntsville citizens) who would not be directly impacted by this, the only people who were in attendance were government officials and Internet Service Providers. and would offer that the ISP’s were not very interested in getting the rural poor involved in the government process.

I believe a related story: A couple of months ago, the Huntsville city government, got significantly involved in the public housing issue, and although the current residents of public housing were probably the most effected, there was very little input from them. Most of the input were from citizens concerned about the affect on their income.

Can “we” make a difference to narrow the digital divide? IMO yes but would suggest it will be by tiny steps UNTIL basic survival questions are answered.

Zachary Michael Trimble

A decent netbook averages at $300. The netbooks are directly modeled after the design goals of the XO, which was designed to be cheap, energy efficient (longer battery life) and durable for low-income, global use, hence the focus on small form-factor designs and the intentional exclusion of dvd-rom drives and other peripherals that eat away at battery-power.

Internet service ranges from $30-$50 a month. At the $50 a month, an individual would spend $600 a year for internet service, or enough to purchase two netbooks. There are also a number of budget desktop PCs in the $300-$500 range.

It follows that low-income individuals who are currently isolated by the digital divide will find universal and free internet service a major bridge to joining the more affluent members of society tapping away on their iPads, iPhones and iMacs.

As to the second argument, that low-income individuals cannot participate in government without a PC, most communities offer communal PC access to the Information Super-Highway, which seems an extension of mass transit as a form of access to physical community access.

Open Source takes care of the software outlays, universal internet service covers net access. The second hand outlets, the budget market and community PC access points will provide options for low-income users.

Steve Radick

How about the group of people who CAN afford computers and Internet access, but who choose NOT to invest their time/money in getting it because they don’t see the value in it? This isn’t just about low-income and disadvantaged populations, but about people like many of my family members. They have the money to buy computers and they live in a location with broadband access, but they don’t see why they NEED a computer with blazing fast Internet access – “why would I send one of those email-y things when I could just call?” The digital divide exists within the mind as well as the wallet.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Zachary – Would you agree that a better way to help low-income folks is to expand the budgets of local libraries to offer free Internet access and computer access? Libraries do that now and their stations are continually crowded so there is a clear need for this service. Expanding this service would help with the digital divide.

@Steve – You can lead a person to the Internet but you can’t make them log on.

Zachary Michael Trimble


Yes. I took a grant writing class in college and I chose a similar theme for the hyothetical grant I was required to write for the final project.

Grant funds for non-profits and linbraries and partnerships with foundations, Big Business and the local, state and Federal government would seem the ideal path.

Open Source provides for a new path, one that benefits the public, unlike the Apple monopoly of the 80s and 90s, which helped widen the digital chasm by pitting two mutually exclusive operating systems against each other and by sucking up billions of education dollars on non-competitive, over-priced software and hardware.

My statement about the affluent tapping away at Apple products was made with that fact in mind.

I was an XO G1G1 participant (where private individuals purchased an XO for $400, with one going to the purchaser and another going to South American children living below the poverty level). Awesome design, great PR campaign, total fail as a versatile, low-income computing solution.

I also have a 1st generation ASUS Netbook (EEE 1000; 2 ssd drives). Dollar for dollar, I consider it the best value I have ever gotten back on a PC purchase and I’m currently reading a PDF from Google Books on it while I right this response.

Asus is what Apple should be. It would awesome to see them break into pop culture through an educational/community oriented program to deliver low-budget, high performance computing to those let stranded with the Luddite’s on the analog side of the digital divide.

Zachary Michael Trimble

Okay, I should have proof-read that before I submitted it.

Please excuse all of the typos and the unintentional use of “right” for “write.”

A 15 minute window to edit comments would be a cool GovLoop feature.

Daniel Bevarly

I will also concur with those who have mentioned this is not an economic, ethnic, gender or generational challenge. Rather it is more a collective of citizen apathy from disinterest, distrust and disengagement. Those are the real challenges that unfortunately technology will not solve, however, there is an encouraging development that technology can successful support engagement when there is interest.

We should be able to make progress if we can find a way to continue into new administrations and governance processes the same types of collaborative technologies that political campaigns utilize to connect with voters. But even here, we know many challenges exist, including legal ones.

Unfortunately, “Open Government” in this sense with easy access to data appears to be more receptive among and used by organizations with special interests to lobby or advocate for their goals –which is also a root cause of citizen apathy.

BTW, I’ve been an advocate of transitioning our libraries to also serve as a community’s public comment centers where citizens can visit to view, in particular, local government (state and federal as well?) activity and policy making and provide comments. Hard copies should also be available of some of the content for those who do not wish to view online and submit comments that could be uploaded by staff.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Tuning back in to this conversation, I definitely agree that there is a more widespread sense of apathy among citizens that prevents them from being more engaged with their government…but I don’t want us to sweep low-income folks into that group – the question there is more about access…and only after we’ve achieved access can we talk about engagement…so if I were facilitating a focus group, I’d split the room and have one group address access and another to tackle engagement.

In terms of libraries, I have two other relevant posts entitled “Libraries as Linchpins of #Gov20 and #OpenGov” and “Project of the Week: YOUMedia (Chicago Public Library)

Candace Riddle

The key is education. Bridging the digital divide should be addressed early in the educational curriculum in low-income area schools. That will certainly be the first step to engaging future generations and capturing their interest.

On that same note, I grew up in a rural community where schools were not always equipped with the latest technology. When I went to college I started out as an Environmental Science major, but quickly changed when I realized that my skills with “technology” were far behind that of my classmates. My rural education had not provided access to the “high-tech” calculators and necessary lessons in excel, instead they emphasized the power of the pencil and paper. When I entered basic chemistry in college, I struggled to generate computer models for lab reports and to calculate conversations in class. Needless to say, I blew up several test tubes and switched majors.

How are these children going to feel if these issues remain unaddressed, and they show up to take their SATs or ACTs and they’re all done on a computer? Think about how many things have moved to a completely web-based system: standardized testing, some voting, most job applications, etc.

The point is; the digital divide has to be addressed early to generate interest for life.

Zachary Michael Trimble

@ Riddle

You bring up an interesting point about education. One of the obstacles to spanning the Divide is that new technology often outpaces educator skill-sets, and, it would be a disservice to the truth to ignore the issue of apathy among teachers and public servants who through tenure, collective bargaining protections and other forums, occupy positions which require constant education, enthusiasm and a desire to serve … and despite their inability to meet the core criteria, these under-performers are allowed to retain their positions of trust, thereby undermining the missions of the agency or educational institution they serve.

If Government can make digital access simple, fulfilling and provide practical incentive and return on investment, I’m fairly sure the citizenry will meet them on the other side.

The webinars and digital town hall meetings that the Department of Labor has been using to engage its stakeholders on policy, regulatory concerns and other jurisdictional issues are a step in the right direction.

@ Brantley – Dude, so sorry I called you Bradley.

Matt Snyder

I think we need to judo this – instead of focusing on bridging the digital gap by forcing everyone to jump across it into the internets, we need to ensure that internet is not a pre-requisite for obtaining services and being an involved citizen.

Take my grandmother, for example. It drives her up the wall that companies and government alike are directing people to websites, for example, in advertisements or in the queue of a call-in number. She feels ignored and left out. Trust me, she’s plenty opinionated and aware of what’s going on in the world, but she is *not* going to involve herself when attempts to do so are so alienating to her.

Another example – I was an organizer in a previous federal campaign and many of my team members were middle-aged or senior citizens, and one of the most important adjustments I had to make to involve them was to realize that many didn’t have email (or internet, period), some didn’t have cell phones, and those that did had to husband their minutes very carefully to make their monthly budget.

Digital town halls and the like have their place and can be useful. Online services are great – I appreciate them, often prefer them. But what we owe the people we serve is access to information, engagement, and services in whatever way is easiest for them to access, not whatever way is easiest for us to provide.

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Matt – Great statement: “But what we owe the people we serve is access to information, engagement, and services in whatever way is easiest for them to access, not whatever way is easiest for us to provide.”

@Zachary – Nice: “If Government can make digital access simple, fulfilling and provide practical incentive and return on investment, I’m fairly sure the citizenry will meet them on the other side.”

Candace: You and I both grew up in rural areas…so I completely understand the lack of access and exposure point. It really limited my opportunities because (a) I wasn’t equipped and (b) I wasn’t made aware…
And we’re moving more and more toward a mobile, web-based society…which may actually be easier for the consumer, too…so we definitely want to bring folks up to speed.

Javier Muniz

Low-cost Android or similar smart phones are the only viable way that I’ve seen to solve this problem. Many low-income families are already using mobile phones rather than land lines. Giving these phones an operating system capable of installing applications and a data plan seems to me to be the most cost effective way to reach these users.

Community broadband is great of course, and would augment the mobile strategy well if delivered via WiFi, since some WiFi-only devices coming in at around $100.

We need to think beyond the desktop/laptop/netbook for sure, not just for low income but for the masses.