Government services must include the digitally disadvantaged
“Every day, our volunteers see people who are struggling to access government services due to the shift to delivering them primarily, or sometimes solely, online,” writes Andrew Hubbard.
Dr Andrew Hubbard is Deputy Chief Executive of Citizens Advice Bureau New Zealand, Ngā Pou Whakawhirinaki o Aotearoa
OPINION: At Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), we have a vision where government services are easily accessible to everyone, in a way that works for them. That means services that put people at the center, treat everyone with dignity, and respect how you want to contact them, whether that’s by phone, in person, or online. Unfortunately, it seems that the government does not share this vision for Aotearoa.
Every day, our volunteers (we have over 2,500 operating in 81 CABs) see people who struggle to access government services due to the tendency to deliver them primarily, or sometimes only, online.
The shift to digital-only or digital-by-default services leaves people frustrated, isolated and unable to access basic rights and privileges. We need, and are entitled to, government services that serve the public and their diverse needs.
Instead, we see customers who find it difficult, if not impossible, to access the services they need because they are not designed for people’s real needs. A recent example of this was a client who was bullied at work and wanted to apply for employment mediation. He found the process very stressful, but he was determined because he didn’t want the same thing to happen to anyone else.
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The application had to be done online and it did not have the required RealMe login. There was also a pre-application form to download, complete, and then upload with one’s application. He found the online process totally overwhelming and inaccessible for him, so he came to CAB for help. Is this an example of a service designed with people at the center, or a service designed for the needs of the government agency?
There’s the client who wanted to apply for income support, made an appointment and showed up to be told to apply online, even though she doesn’t have a computer or smart phone. The client whose tax refund went to the wrong account couldn’t navigate IRD’s systems to correct it and just wanted to be able to tell someone. We have thousands of other customer stories we need to help because government services are not reaching the people who need them most.
Banks are closing down in rural towns and it’s the elderly who have the problems, according to Greg Dunn, a Matamata man.
We all go through stressful times in life, whether it’s the loss of a job, the death of a family member, family breakdown, or the day-to-day challenges of parenting, relationships, and joining ends meet, and these stress points are often times when we have to interact with government services. We are simply asking that the government recognize that digital solutions are not best for everyone or in all situations. People should be able to pick up the phone without having to wait in line for an hour, and they should be able to see someone face to face in order to get help.
To be clear, the growth of online platforms and processes is not the problem. It is the overreliance on them and the withdrawal of people from the delivery of government services. Although online services work well for many people, there are times when they just don’t work and times when people need to talk to someone who is there to help them. The government must recognize this and act.
It is clear to us that the public service is currently moving towards a digital-only future that will create greater disadvantages for many and marginalize and harm some of the most vulnerable people in our community. We are worried and concerned about what we see.
That is why we advocate for inclusive public services and calling on Public Service Minister Chris Hipkins, Public Services Commissioner Peter Hughes and heads of government agencies to show leadership.
Access to public services – the ability to obtain our rights and fulfill our obligations – is a human right. We call on the government to guarantee this right to all New Zealanders now and in the future.