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Commentary Article October 19th, 2021
Innovation • Technology • Justice • Legitimacy

The equity imperative - digital transformation for all citizens

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#COVID19 has brought about a rush to digitise public services & ensure accessibility for all. This has brought into sharp focus a key question that governments must address: How do we ensure digital transformation is equitable & works for everyone?

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How might govts best achieve equity in their digital transformation efforts? Drawing from examples from around the world, Bea & Miguel have listed four key elements they believe are fundamental to promoting digital equity

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.@CPI_foundation & @BCG Centre for Government Digital Transformation are working together to put digital equity on the agenda at the highest levels of govt around the world. Want to join the conversation? Share your ideas with us!

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The COVID-19 crisis has dramatically accelerated governments’ use of digital technology, enabling them to reach larger populations and serve citizens' needs at a time when public services were forced to go online. This has opened up opportunities to advance social progress and foster social inclusion. But, it has also deepened the disparities in digital access around the world. 

With half the world’s population currently living without internet access, governments face the risk of increasing inequities in an era of increased reliance on digital services. This gap disproportionately affects women and young girls, exacerbating gender inequalities. Recently, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2021 Inclusive Internet Index reported that men are 14% more likely than women to have access to the internet. There is also a divide in digital skills: in the UK for example, an estimated 22% of UK adults do not have the essential digital skills needed for day-to-day life.

This rush to digitise public services and ensure accessibility for all has brought into sharp focus a key question that governments must address: How do we ensure digital transformation is equitable and works for everyone?

Cities often think about [smart city] programs in a homogeneous way, not an equitable way. Without understanding the people that are going to live in this smart city - what their priorities and problems are - we’re not going to get to them,” explains Aura Vazquez, former commissioner for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “So, we must be very intentional about how we deploy for those communities.

Being intentional about digital equity requires governments to take a holistic approach and stop seeing populations as homogeneous. Instead, governments must design around people’s specific needs, with more critical attention given to the most vulnerable by taking into account their lived experience and the system in which they live. As President of Ethiopia, Sahle-Work Zewde, puts it:

Ensuring that no one is left behind means ensuring that technology is people-centred.

So, how might governments best achieve equity in their digital transformation efforts? Drawing from examples from around the world, we’ve listed below four key elements which we believe are fundamental to promoting digital equity.

1. Ensuring fair and equal access to digital infrastructure

One of the key challenges to digital equity is the growing gap between the members of society who have reliable access to broadband services and an adequate device for connecting to the internet and those who do not. A study in the US found that low income and elderly populations, people of colour, and those who live in rural and tribal areas are disproportionately likely to lack broadband access: 43% of adults with incomes below $30,000 a year report not having home broadband services, in comparison to 7% of adults with household earnings of over $100,000 a year. Access to broadband services are essential for modern life, access to public services and - importantly, -equal educational, economic and social opportunities. 

Ensuring digital equity, therefore, means taking an equitable lens to broadband access and other digital infrastructure. In short, this means ensuring high-quality broadband services are available to every household in every community, that they are affordable, and that everyone has access to a secure device, regardless of income. 

The importance of this has been acknowledged by an increasing number of governments across the globe, which has only been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The EU prioritised digitisation as part of its €750bn COVID-19 stimulus package. The US Senate recently passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) which, if signed into law, would make unprecedented federal investments in broadband infrastructure and technology. Another notable example includes the government of Colombia, which launched its connectivity plan in May 2021. This will see 10,000 digital centers installed, which will provide free, high-speed internet to residents across the country, 80-90% of which will be located in marginalised communities in the Amazon.

2. Providing digital skills training and accessible resources

Equal access to digital infrastructure, however, is not enough in itself to achieve digital equity. Another fundamental element refers to the adoption of technology and digital resources: does everyone have the required set of skills to use digital services? Is technology tailored to every individual’s needs, as unique as these may be? 

Inequalities in digital skills remain a challenge for many governments across the world, impacting elderly populations, women, and marginalised communities disproportionately. It is estimated that in Europe, 169 million Europeans between 16 and 74 years – 44% – still do not have basic digital skills. At the same time, studies show that in the future, 9 out of 10 jobs will require digital skills. It is therefore vital that governments are thinking actively about digital adoption.

Equitable adoption means ensuring that everyone has the digital skills, tools, and resources needed to safely and privately use information and communication technology to improve their lives. But it also means that digital content is designed for everyone to access with ease regardless of ability, age, income, or language. In addition to launching digital skills capacity building programmes, governments are also revisiting existing services to ensure these are accessible by everyone. In the UK, the city of London, for instance, recently revisited its community online engagement platform, TalkLondon, in an effort to make it more inclusive and accessible to the user. And the UK government has published a guide on how to create accessible apps or websites.

3. Designing for equity

Service design is today an approach widely used in governments to design digital services. The term “user-centered design” refers simply to a method of building products with an eye toward what users want and need. However, in recent years, the conversation has shifted to exploring what a truly human centered approach means - acknowledging that technology can easily perpetuate existing inequalities and discrimination. So what needs to be done to ensure this approach centres people and rectifies existings inequalities rather than perpetuating our current systems? 

Designing equitable digital services requires thinking firstly about who we are designing for. In seeking to orient public policy toward the people it impacts, it’s important to ask: which people are we designing for? 

In addition, it is important to acknowledge that every service exists within an ecosystem of a user’s life - not based on a standalone experience. The process itself needs to be focused on building with, not for, ”traditionally excluded communities.” It requires creating an inclusive process that goes beyond transparency and consultation and includes empowerment and co-design. 

Designers and technologists must “design with, rather than for people,” says Bryce Johnson, Inclusive Lead at Microsoft Devices. “We should rely on compassion – we have to listen and take people as the expert.” Product leaders must empower intended user communities to make product decisions, rather than just validating them.

The process itself needs to be focused on building with, not for, ”traditionally excluded communities.”

For governments, this means intentionally thinking about equitable service design by for instance ensuring the design team has diverse backgrounds, prioritising relationships in co-design processes, consciously devolving power to communities, and potentially redesigning existing services by putting the right user at the centre. The Danish Ministry of Finance has, for instance, redesigned its public service for welfare payments by focusing on user needs - prioritising plain language, simple instructions, and an easy to use web platform. The Singapore government has also put design at the heart of its public sector improvement initiatives — using it to transform citizen-facing services — making life less stressful for new parents, improving quality of life for people with disabilities, and digitizing manual parking coupons. Similarly, the Swedish government widely uses co-design approaches. These are undertaken in collaboration with residents themselves, to develop new digital services which deliver better experiences, better outcomes and promote inclusivity - often at a lower cost. 

4. Prioritise principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into all digital transformation activities

Governments are actively prioritising and embedding concepts of digital equity into their digital strategies. For example, France launched a specific digital inclusion strategy in 2018 to support its plan to digitise 100% of its administrative procedures by 2022. Similarly, the European Commission published an “Action plan on Integration and Inclusion 2021-2027: Digital public services as an enabler”, committing itself to work on an inclusive EU egovernment action plan, that promotes human-centric digital public services for citizens, including migrants, and engagement of migrants in the creation and delivery of digital public services. 

Where next? 

We believe these four areas should be a priority for governments who are seeking to achieve digital equity and create better outcomes for citizens. At the Centre for Public Impact, we are continuing to explore this important topic in a number of ways. We’re cooperating with the Boston Consulting Group’s Centre for Government Digital Transformation to put this topic on the agenda at the highest levels of government around the world 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.

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How can we advance digital equity together?

Are you working on digital transformation efforts that seek to prioritise equity? If you want to read more about our work in digital, take a look at the Innovation in the face of crisis, Insights from European cities (2020) and Exploring the role of dignity in governments AI Ethics instrument (2020).

Want to join the conversation? We’re always looking for new ideas, partners and fresh insights, so please complete our survey, we’d love to hear about your experiences.

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Written by:

Beatriz Cano Buchholz Senior Associate, Europe
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Miguel Carrasco Senior Partner and Managing Director, The Boston Consulting Group, Canberra
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Shaheen Warren Programme Manager, Europe
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