why organizations should allow those who can’t or won’t go online
We hear the phrase “digital transformation” a lot these days. It is often used to describe the process of replacing functions and services that were once performed face-to-face by humans with online interactions that are faster, more convenient and “empowering” for the user.
But does digital transformation really deliver on these promises? Or is the seemingly relentless digitization of life actually reinforcing existing social divides and inequalities?
Take banking, for example. Where customers once transacted with cashiers at local branches, they are now encouraged to do everything online. The closure of branches leaves many people, especially the elderly, struggling with what was once an easy, daily task.
Or consider the now-common call center experience involving electronic voice, menu options, chatbots, and a “user journey” aimed at nudging customers online.
As organizations and government agencies in Aotearoa New Zealand and beyond grapple with the call to become more “digital”, we have considered the implications for those who find the process difficult or marginalizing.
Since 2021, we have been working with the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) and talking to public and private sector organizations that use digital channels to deliver services. Our results suggest that there is still a long way to go to find the right balance between digital and non-digital.
The “problematic” non-user
The mainstream view now suggests that the pursuit of a digital society will allow everyone to lead a “frictionless” life. As the government policy document, Towards a Digital Strategy for Aotearoa, clarifies:
Digital tools and services can allow us to learn new skills, easily transact and receive health and wellness support at a time that suits us and without having to travel from home .
Of course, we are already living this new world. Many public and private services are increasingly available digitally by default. Non-digital alternatives are shrinking or even disappearing.
Read more: The digital divide disadvantages millions during the coronavirus pandemic
There are two assumptions underlying the idea that everyone can or should interact digitally.
First, it implies that those who cannot access digital services (or who prefer non-digital options) are problematic or deficient in some way – and that this can be overcome simply by greater provision of technology, training or “pushing” non-users to come on board.
Second, it assumes that digital inclusion – by increasing the provision of digital services – will automatically increase social inclusion.
Neither of the two hypotheses is necessarily true.
“The Digital App”
The CAB (which has mainly face-to-face branches across New Zealand) has documented a significant increase in the number of people who find it difficult to access government services because the digital channel was the default option or the only option.
The office argues that access to public services is a human right and, by implication, moving to digital public services that are not universally accessible deprives some people of this right.
In previous research, we call this form of deprivation “digital enforcement,” defined as a process of dispossession that reduces people’s choices.
Read more: Digital inequality: why can I walk into your building – but your website shows me the door?
Through our current research, we find that the reality of a digital society is, in fact, far from perfect and frictionless. Our preliminary findings underscore the need to better understand the outcomes of digital transformation at a more nuanced individual level.
The reasons why a significant number of people find it difficult to access and navigate online services vary. And it is often an intersection of several causes related to finances, education, culture, language, trust or well-being.
Even when they have access to technology and digital skills, the complexity of many online demands and the chaotic life situations some people face limit their ability to use digital services productively and meaningfully.
The human factor
The resulting sense of disenfranchisement and control is regrettable, but not inevitable. Some organizations are now looking for alternatives to a single focus on moving services online.
They are not completely eliminating the call center or customer support staff, but rather using digital technology to improve human-centric service delivery.
Read more: “Sorry, I don’t understand” – the problem with chatbots and how to best use them
Other organizations are considering partnerships with intermediaries who can work with people who find it difficult to engage with digital services. The Department of Health, for example, is supporting a community-based Maori health and social service provider to establish a digital health center to improve local access to healthcare.
Our research continues, but we can already see evidence — from CAB itself and other large organizations — of the benefits of moving away from an uncritical focus on digital transformation.
In doing so, the aim is to overcome the divide between those who are digitally included and excluded, and instead encourage social inclusion in the digital age. This way, organizations can still advance technologically, but not at the expense of the humans they serve.