Joining forces to remove digital barriers to government services

A new PwC survey confirms that if more citizens use digital channels to access government services, many vulnerable citizens risk being left behind, further compounding their social and economic disadvantage. The government can solve this problem by focusing on three main barriers to digital inclusion: access, affordability and capacity.

Australians’ reliance on technology is increasing day by day. Indeed, the recent PwC report Citizen Survey 2022 found that the use of government services through digital channels has exploded over the past 18 months.

Our poll contained some encouraging news for government leaders – along with some food for thought.

On the positive side, a growing number of citizens (43%) say that digital services help them feel connected. A similar number agree that the digitalization of government has made services more accessible.

More concerning, however, are indications that Australia’s digital divide is widening. A third of citizens now feel left behind by technology (compared to around a quarter in June 2020).

Digital barriers have social and economic consequences

Disadvantaged Australians face several barriers to digital inclusion. This exacerbates other forms of social exclusion such as access to health services, employment opportunities and education.

According to the Australian Digital Inclusion Index 2021, more than one in ten Australians remain severely excluded[1]. This translates to around 2.8 million Australians, equivalent to almost the entire population of Brisbane.

Informed by PwC’s work with governments and communities, this article describes how to deliver services more equitably. Basically, we recommend tackling three barriers to digital inclusion: access, affordability and capacity.

1. Digital access enables Australians to fully participate in society

“Digital access” is the ability to use digital technologies to participate fully in society. Our 2022 Citizen Survey found that while 44% agree that the government has made the internet more accessible to all citizens, around 1 in 5 citizens disagree.

Digital access is often determined by socio-economic factors (eg income, education, geography). Numerically marginalized groups include many remote/rural residents, those living with disabilities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The digital divide reflects the often spotty, unreliable or completely absent internet and mobile coverage in many rural and remote areas[2]

State and federal governments are investing to increase coverage. Meanwhile, communities are establishing shared local internet hotspots, provided by government or other sources. To make further progress, the government can pursue several strategies:

  • Engage with local community leaders to understand their aspirations for new technologies and tailor solutions to the individual needs of each community.
  • Share the success of community initiatives across states and territories, then seek to iterate, expand and scale them.
  • Consider opportunities to co-invest with industry and cut red tape to deliver connectivity where it’s needed most.
  • Work with industry to find innovative solutions to Internet connectivity (eg leveraging satellite technology or PPPs with other organizations to expand networks).
  • Make sure the services are running in “offline mode”; where citizens can upload/download information as they access it (e.g. through apps). And make more downloadable content.

2. Direct and indirect ways to overcome barriers to affordability

In our 2022 Citizen Survey, nearly one in five respondents (18%) disagree that access to mobile phone and data is affordable. When digital access is unaffordable, individuals and communities are more likely to face barriers such as unreliable internet service and limited access to devices. This, in turn, hampers their prospects for education, employment and health.

In some remote communities, everyone in a single household may depend on a single device to access the internet, limiting access to vital online services and posing privacy risks.

Government can go further to improve affordability by:

  • Increase awareness/ease of access to low-cost services for low-income groups (eg charities providing free data/second-hand devices).
  • Work with telecom operators to exclude critical services from usage charges.
  • Adaptation of fixed and mobile service packages to vulnerable groups.
  • Develop digital services that allow multi-users.
  • Optimization of services for mobile use.
  • Testing to ensure services work on the latest and oldest technologies.
  • Optimize development for low data consumption.

3. Ways to get all Australians on the digital journey

Australians must maintaining existing skills while keeping pace with the influx of new technologies. The correlation between digital capability and education, income and age reveals a gap where those who do not engage in technology through work and/or education have fewer opportunities to maintain/improve their digital skills.

The 2021 Australian Digital Inclusion Index showed that only 14% of highly excluded Australians have recently improved their digital skills[3]. Additionally, our 2022 Citizen Survey indicates that lack of trust in government can be a major cause of exclusion.
Governments are tackling digital literacy through programs tailored to specific groups and providing long-term education opportunities for develop Australians’ STEM skills. To consolidate this, agencies can join forces to:

  • Establish, fund and contribute to digital literacy programs for at-risk groups.
  • Support and scale programs to enable digital upskilling for those excluded from employment or education (such as Be Connected[4]).
  • Leverage the non-profit sector to deliver digital courses tailored to community sectors (e.g. visually impaired, low literacy).
  • Provide excluded citizens with opportunities to participate in the technology workforce/education to embed digital literacy into everyday life.
  • Enable people with lived experience to co-design government services.
  • Make it easier for citizens to appoint someone to manage their digital affairs on their behalf.
  • Provide education/support that improves understanding of privacy, cyber risk and security (e.g. scams, identity theft).
  • Ethical engineering to manage unintended consequences.

Right now we have a unique opportunity to improve the prospects of disadvantaged Australians. The government has made significant progress in service innovation and now, through digital inclusion strategies, we can ensure that all citizens share in the benefits of this hard work.

Ashley C. Reynolds