The Importance of Accessible and Inclusive Public Service Tech in Times of Crisis

The Importance of Accessible and Inclusive Public Service Tech in Times of Crisis

Digital tech has become critical for governments to share information and provide essential services during COVID-19. Designing public sector tech with users at the centre is key for resiliency.
The Importance of Accessible and Inclusive Public Service Tech in Times of Crisis
Darren Elias
Communications Intern
​Sarah Villeneuve
Policy Analyst
August 11, 2020
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On April 6, 2020, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) portal opened, allowing Canadians impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic to apply for emergency benefits. As of June 2020, over 18 million CERB applications have been processed and millions of Canadians have received crucial emergency income support. CERB’s success shows that it is possible for the federal government to quickly adapt, mobilize, and distribute funding in a user-friendly way. With Service Canada centres closed and the need for Canadians to access financing and information (such as critical medical information) at an all-time high, COVID-19 has forced some government programs and services to become more nimble and digital-first. Programs such as CERB have been described as a bureaucratic miracle due to the speed at which they were developed under duress and the ease at which programs were made accessible to those needing to access them.

COVID-19 has accelerated government digitalization

While proactive steps have been taken in recent yearsincluding the launch of a digital academy to train public servants and a commitment to a comprehensive set of Digital StandardsCanada ranks just 28th in the UN’s most recent digital government evaluation report, a far cry from the digital success the country saw at the start of the century, and even earlier this decade. While Canada’s digital government score has not fallen, it has been leapfrogged by its global peers in aspects such as scope and quality of online services, status of telecommunication infrastructure, and human capacity.

As seen in our scan, COVID-19 created the imperative for Canada, along with many other countries, to respond rapidly by taking public services digital. This is a result of Canadians being encouraged to stay home and in-person government services channels closing, as demand for services increased sharply due to the economic crisis. Public sector agencies such as Service Canada have embraced digital service delivery. In response to 318 in-person location closures and call-centre backlogs, the department’s website now features an online intake tool, which includes a request form for an employee to call you back and a virtual assistant chatbot that can answer COVID-19-related requests. Even court hearings have gone digital, as 300 courtrooms in Ontario have been outfitted for virtual trials. In addition to adapting existing public services, the government has introduced new COVID-19 digital services, such as a symptom self-assessment app and a wage subsidy calculator. As former Chief Information Officer of Canada Alex Benay writes, COVID-19 has unleashed a new norm of the “digital-first” government that he’s long pressed for.

Digitalization is beneficial to both citizens and the government. Studies from Accenture, Deloitte, and the OECD demonstrate reduced costs and time savings, higher levels of data security and transparency, and increased accessibility to key services. However to be successful, governments must ensure its programs and services are accessible to those it seeks to serve, and public servants are able to understand and efficiently design, deliver, and guide users through digital service channels.

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Renewed importance of digital infrastructure, skills, and literacy

Many initiatives across the country are focusing on digitally upskilling public servants, including the Canadian Digital Service, the Ontario Digital Service, Code for Canada, and the Digital Academy. However as professors Amanda Clarke and Jonathan Craft have noted in a pre-pandemic article, more needs to be done, and faster. They point to the UK government as a comparison, which is much farther along than Canada in building its tech talent-base, including embedding policy sector–specific digital teams in a number of ministries. Ultimately, we need to instill public servants with a sense of technical intuition: what UK technology advisor Alix Dunn refers to as a practical understanding of the possibilities and risks of technology and the ability to know when digital projects won’t work. This is similar to the approach of the Canadian Public Service Digital Academy that aims to increase the digital acumen of public servants at all levels who are working to modernize digital services by advancing their understanding of digital technology and its impacts on public servants and government service provision. It is important that Canada continues investing in these training programs and uses the digital momentum brought on by the pandemic as a learning opportunity on what wasand even more importantly, what wasn’teffective. 

The pandemic has highlighted the value of internet access as an essential service, significantly increasing the need for digital access to support online learning, remote work, social connection, civic engagement, and public health information and services. While 96 percent of Canadians have access to some level of internet connection, challenges such as speed and costs persist. In 2017, only 37 percent of rural households had access to 50/10 Mbpsthe speed which is considered sufficient to make use of the Internet’s full functionalitycompared with 97 percent of urban homes. And this number drops even lower to 24 percent for Indigenous communities. To help address this, current federal budget includes a $5 to $6 billion investment towards a national target where 95 percent of Canadian homes and businesses will have access to internet speeds of at least 50/10 Mbps by 2026 and 100 percent by 2030, no matter where they are located in the country. At the provincial level, the Government of Ontario has allocated $150 million to expand broadband internet across the province, as part of a previous $315 million plan developed to improve digital connectivity in rural communities. Similarly, Quebec has fast-tracked a $450 million plan to provide high-speed internet connections to the 300,000 families in the province that currently lack access. However, ensuring delivery does not guarantee the ability of families and individuals to purchase services. Even when connectivity and speed are secured, access to the internet is muddled by socio-economic disparities related to affordability. In 2017, 69 percent of lower-income households in Canada had internet access at home compared to 98.5 percent of higher-income households. This is a significant issue for government because digitalized public services are only truly beneficial if access to these services is available to all Canadians. Canada must not only prioritize connectivity, but also affordability for those in remote and underserviced communities and low-income households.

Accompanying this must also be a focus on digital literacy to ensure that everyone is able to navigate the necessary digital services. Previous research at BII+E has shown that there is a wide range of digital literacy programming available, including formal educational programming within K–12 and post-secondary schools, as well as programs led by non-profit and private sector organizations. However many people are unable to access these programs, due to factors such as cost, geography, schedule, literacy levels, and lack of home internet or device ownership. Additionally low levels of digital literacy overlap with other socio-economic indicators, which risks leaving people further behind as government services digitize. Consistent digital access and training in digital skills to those that need it the most are foundational requirements for residents to effectively engage with a digitalized public services.

Moving analog processes to digital is often done to increase efficiency. However, digital public services will only be as efficient as they are accessible.

Keeping the user at the centre

A key component of a digitalized public sector is accessibility to services. Moving analog processes to digital is often done to increase efficiency. However, digital public services will only be as efficient as they are accessible. 

While some more advanced initiatives related to the use of blockchain and digital ID have gained headway with some provincial governments and federal ministries, British Columbia’s Chief Digital Officer Jaimie Boyd points out that sometimes, simpler is better. Highlighting Digital BC’s recent success with human-centred design, she stated that, “If you aren’t building public sector tech with the citizens at the centre, you’re doing it wrong.” She also notes the importance of recognizing when technology is actually needed, and when it’s not: “It’s not a solution for everything.” This view is seconded by Bianca Wylie, who writes that to make the most out of technology you have to make it smaller and grow the role of humans in defining how technology can work and be used.

Take Canada’s new COVID Alert app as an example. While the app has been praised for it’s privacy protection measures, it has received criticism due to its incompatibility with older phones and operating systems, which limits access to only those with phones that have newer operating systems. This carries clear implications for individuals from low-income households who are unable to upgrade their phone. This is a significant concern as it’s been shown that individuals in lower-income communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and would therefore likely benefit the most from using the app. 

Ensuring that digitalized public services are able to reach those who need them is a core challenge for governments as they adapt to physical public service branch closures. As the pandemic continues to amplify the importance of digital technology for communicating information, accessing services, and enabling remote work and learning, governments should prioritize virtual services that are user-friendly and accessible, while ensuring that everyone has access to the technology and digital literacy needed to do so.

Thank you to Nisa Malli for her contributions to this piece.

For media enquiries, please contact Lianne George, Director of Strategic Communications at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.

Darren Elias
Communications Intern
​Sarah Villeneuve
Policy Analyst
August 11, 2020
Print Page

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