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Article Article December 9th, 2021
Innovation • Technology • Legitimacy • International Development

A conversation with global leaders on digital equity

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The @BCG Center for Digital Government & @CPI_foundation hosted a virtual roundtable to explore the topic of #digitalequity with global leaders and experts from around the world. 📖 Explore key takeaways.

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#COVID19 has accelerated the global issue of digital equity 💻 How should govts tackle today's #digitaldivide? Read this @CPI_foundation article, gathering insights from global leaders & experts on the topic.

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"Centring people as part of the solution is crucial. We are blindsiding millions of citizens that have no way of connecting with the government." Learn about the importance of relevance, knowledge & accessibility in #digitalequity

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On 23rd November, the BCG Center for Digital Government and Centre for Public Impact hosted a virtual roundtable to explore the topic of digital equity with global leaders and experts from around the world. COVID-19 has only accelerated this global issue and the event provided an opportunity for guests to discuss key measures and strategies that governments should implement to tackle today’s digital divide.

Below, we’ve highlighted some of the key takeaways from the discussion: 

The digital divide is a complex, multifaceted concept that has always existed and goes beyond access to technology

COVID-19 pushed governments to deliver their services online, highlighting the digital inequalities present in many regions across the world. However, the digital divide is nothing new. It has always existed and is symptomatic of poverty - a reflection of the geographical and socioeconomic inequalities in our societies. Today, half of the world’s population, an estimated 3.7 billion people, do not use the Internet (United Nations, 2021). While the number of people online has increased rapidly in recent years, millions cannot work, go to school remotely, or access technology and its benefits. In addition, those under-connected tend to belong to vulnerable communities and isolated rural and remote areas - and with COVID-19, digital inequalities have been further exacerbated.

Nicole Turner-Lee, a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies, Director of the Center for Technology Innovation and our keynote guest, shared alarming figures on U.S. students during the pandemic: “In the U.S., 15 to 16 million students did not have broadband access or a device to connect to school lessons during COVID-19. Most of these children belong to Black and Latino communities whose parents were frontline workers in the pandemic, so the students didn’t have parental support on their homework. These severe learning losses are directly impacting educational institutions as they are feeling the pressure of shifting to remote learning when needed.”

One government leader highlighted the gravity of these figures and insisted that governments need to put a curriculum in place to ensure all children have the skills to participate in our future economy:

“We need to adopt technology so that certain communities are not left behind. We need to create a voice globally. The problem will not be solved until the entire world participates in the digital economy.”

Action should be focused on infrastructure, people and taking a multi-stakeholder and multi-disciplinary response

Participants agreed that digital equity could be best addressed by taking action in three key areas:

1. Ensuring a reliable, cohesive, and compatible infrastructure that matches the supply and demand of technology is crucial to ensure equal access.

Rural regions are significantly disadvantaged as competition is not equally spread between urban centres and rural areas. As one participant noted, “the digital divide is not only urban - it is actually very rural.” To address this, governments must ensure fair competition between service providers and centre their response on the community’s needs and problems. Enabling 5G coverage or fiber optic internet connections are essential parts of the digital infrastructure. However, it is also crucial to recognise that no one-size-fits-all solution or technology will work for all rural areas. “The intervention needs to be different based on geography too and our response must correctly address communities´ needs, including for the most geographically isolated ones.”

2. A people-centric approach is critical to developing governments’ action plans and strategies to promote digital equity and ensure no citizen is left behind.

"Centring people as part of the solution is crucial. We are blindsiding millions of citizens that have no way of connecting with the government."

This refers to the decisions that are being taken regarding digital equity - such as who gets to sit at the table? But it also includes designing services by correctly incorporating users’ needs and experience and ensuring equal access, as highlighted above. Core elements to achieve this approach include focussing on:

  • Relevance: Governments must ensure that all citizens can understand and embrace the opportunities that technology offers. They must explore how technology can help people engage in the mainstream economy, shifting technology from a consumable product to a platform of the productive ecosystem: “we need to ensure that people are not only online to receive a service, but to be part of that service.”

  • Knowledge: Governments must meet people at their level of ability and understanding regarding technology. Digital literacy and skills are imperative. Governments must acknowledge the need to build the digital literacy and skills of their populations, including training on cybersecurity. Technologies should also be adapted to people’s abilities and skills in the digital landscape. One initiative mentioned during the discussion was creating a digital service that offers support to local communities when using digital public services.

  • Accessibility: Governments must understand the level of access to technology and digital tools. This includes whether people have broadband and device access, but also the need to adapt digital tools to all types of users because the “digital divide is also how public services work and how easily they work.” One participant raised an experiment in the U.S. that highlighted the lack of user-friendly design and practicability in a healthcare digital service and the barriers to access that created. As part of this experiment, they recorded the experience of a user navigating the website, gleaning insights into the user journey and pain points encountered along the way.

3. Taking a multi-stakeholder and multi-disciplinary approach to respond to the complexity of digital equity.

Digital equity is a global issue: “we made this a country issue when in reality, it is a global issue.” It impacts a wide range of countries and requires a multi-stakeholder and multi-disciplinary response. A more holistic approach that recognises such complexity also provides an opportunity to enhance collaboration in society and offer a new role for the government to play as a system steward. Three key points were highlighted as important to this:

  • Correctly articulate the governance required around digital equity: It is imperative for governments to tackle the digital divide at all levels, and for instance, have digital bodies at the federal or regional level. One proposed solution offered was the creation of a government agency and minister responsible for leading the promotion of digital equity.

  • Enhance public-private partnerships: Governments should work with private and non-government organisations. In Singapore, for example, the government works with technology companies and academia to fund research and collaboration to promote cybersecurity for citizens, particularly for women.

  • Long-term commitment: The time frame for tackling digital equity must be long-term. While some solutions can provide a quick fix in the short term, these actions do not always address the digital divide’s root causes, which may take years or more to fix.

Promoting digital equity is not a “nice to have” – it is an essential part of any government’s role to ensure that all citizens can participate in society and benefit from technological transformation. This has become even more important given how COVID-19 accelerated the digitalization of public services for governments. It is imperative to ensure that no one is left behind. This will not be easy, and it will require empathy and investment. But, if there is strong collaboration across borders and between those working in and outside of government, it is possible.

Where next? 

At the Centre for Public Impact, we continue to explore this important topic in many ways. We’re cooperating with the Boston Consulting Group’s Center for Digital Government to elevate this topic to the highest levels of government worldwide through workshops, discussions and events. Additionally, we’re interested in serving as a learning partner — an organisation that helps others build their capacity to learn — to those governments looking to transform their approach to digital equity.