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How the shift to digital public services is leaving people behind

As government agencies prioritise online interaction, what does it mean for those who just don’t have the digital literacy? A new report explores the scale of digital exclusion in NZ.

Pita, an elderly gentleman, received a letter from the IRD that claimed he hadn’t paid his tax obligations and threatened legal action if he didn’t pay within 30 days. Days earlier, he says, he had attempted to pay his taxes at their physical office but was turned away because he was late. When he received the letter, Pita still didn’t know how much he owed. Without a computer, and not being computer-literate himself, Pita was unable to access his tax records.

That’s one story outlined in the Citizens Advice Bureau’s new report on digital exclusion, and as more services like the IRD focus on digital interaction, those without access to the internet, or without the skills or confidence to engage online, struggle to participate in society in the way that they used to. The new report claims that 10% of all enquiries with CABs around New Zealand have referenced some form of digital exclusion, with one bureau in Mangere finding more than a third of their clients are struggling with the issue.

Put simply, digital exclusion is when people are prevented from participating fully in society because of important services and information being only accessible online. While the common expectation would be that it’s an issue mostly impacting the elderly, the Citizens Advice Bureau notes that digital exclusion is experienced by a wide range of demographics, with ages 30 to 80 being affected relatively equally. 

“Whether you’re 27 or 87, you can be excluded if digital services don’t meet your needs,” says Sacha Green, the report’s author. While those below the age of 30 only make up 9% of cases, the report doesn’t account for children whose guardians may be facing digital exclusion themselves. “It’s about the challenges people face across society that are deeper and wider,” Green says. “They’re the same kind of issues that underlie exclusion and disadvantage.”

While age demographics remain fairly consistent, CAB reports that Māori and Pasifika peoples are disproportionately affected. Together they make up 37% of cases, while only being roughly 25% of the national population. “Digital exclusion is exacerbating existing vulnerabilities,” says Green. “The inequalities that Māori and Pasifika peoples experience across a whole range of social issues also translate into digital exclusion.” A 2018 survey of adult skills conducted by the Ministry of Education found that 1 in 5 Pasifika adults (aged between 16 and 65) had little to no computer experience or were unwilling to use one, compared to 1 in 10 for non-Pasifika adults.

The most prominent example of digital exclusion is the 2018 census, which marked the introduction of a bold new ‘digital-first’ approach. “It wasn’t the first time that there was an online option,” says Green, “but it was the first time Statistics NZ gave priority to online participation.” Paper forms were only provided on request, but making that request required people to be motivated to do so in the first place. Citizens Advice Bureaus were flooded with enquiries, around a thousand within the first few weeks. 

One such enquiry, Green says, was a client who was recently homeless and thus had no mailing address. Upon contacting Statistics NZ, the client was told to find census staff who would be “walking around in purple census t-shirts,” according to Green. “All efforts to find purple-shirt wearing census staff were unsuccessful,” she says. “The client left with details of a local shelter and with our CAB volunteers hoping he might continue to be motivated enough to track a form down.”

The 2018 census had the lowest response rate of the previous five surveys. Responses were particularly low among the Māori and Pasifika population, which prompted Statistics NZ to admit that they were “unacceptable.” The damage from that census is still being felt today, and will remain until the next census in 2023, with statistics on “digital access” being laughable in a survey that was primarily performed online.

Increasingly, those who need support the most are unable to access essential social services such as benefit entitlements and immigration details. Immigration NZ has made a hard shift into online services, closing all of its public counters as of the end of 2018 and ceasing the production of printed forms. The only remaining public access point for INZ is a lonely drop-box in Manukau, says Green. The need for face-to-face support is left to Citizens Advice Bureaus. Green says that they’ve had to carry the cost of printing immigration forms themselves, more than 400,000 pages a year.

CAB says that providing this support is quite costly for what they say is a critically under-funded service, which relies on more than 2,500 volunteers. “Government services routinely refer people to the CAB and yet there is no commitment across government to provide adequate funding,” says Green. “We’re sick of struggling to stay afloat.”

“People will always need and value face-to-face, kanohi te kanohi, human support,” she says. While online interaction is more convenient for some, Green argues, it’s impossible for this to be the only option when inequalities in computer-use are so widespread. “When digital services actually make things harder for some people, there need to be alternatives,” she says. “We need to make sure that services can be accessed by people in ways that work for them.”



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