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Leave no one behind - how to design an inclusive e-government

Datum:03 september 2020
Auteur:Team Industry Relations
© photo: Bongkarn Thanyakij from Pexels
© photo: Bongkarn Thanyakij from Pexels

Leave no one behind - how to design an inclusive e-government

Many of our everyday activities have moved to the web already. Due to current times, the developments accelerated rapidly. We meet friends online, we go shopping online, we follow lectures and educate ourselves online. Recently, there has also been a shift towards governmental services becoming more digital. Prof. dr. Sofia Ranchordas, Chair of European and Comparative Public Law at the University of Groningen (RUG), researches how this transformation takes place. She uses her insights to advise public bodies on how to design for digital inclusion, when governments digitize their services.

Governments worldwide put the use of information and communication technology (ICT) on their agenda to advance and transform public institutions. “Digital government has the potential to improve the relationship between citizens and public authorities and deliver important efficiencies” says Sofia Ranchordas. The promise of digital governments is towards improved service delivery capabilities and meeting the expectation of citizens wanting flexible online services. Governments might use AI in their legal operations or chatbots for customer service that automatically answer questions. However, building an inclusive and accountable digital government is not easy.

Sofia Ranchordas is particularly interested in legal questions of data-driven regulation and governance as well as the impact of digitalization on the principles of good administration. She researches public law and technology from an interdisciplinary perspective. The overarching question of her current work is how technology disrupts traditional legal frameworks. With her research, she provides advice to public bodies in various domains, tackling legal and societal challenges of the e-government such as digital exclusion, the collaboration between public and private institutions, and future-proofing laws.

Digital exclusion
Imagine strolling through the streets of a city on a busy saturday - do all people you see have the same level of digital literacy? Most likely not: the levels of digital literacy differ throughout our society. Still, governments design with a specific citizen in mind, often this citizen is assumed to have “average digital literacy”. However, some citizens fall way below the digital literacy required to operate e-governmental services that are already in place. This leads to an exclusion of citizens based on skills. As long as services are provided online only as an alternative to offline services, it is not a drastic issue, because citizens who are not savvy enough online can go to the authority office. More and more governments, however, try to get rid of their traditional offline services and shift to online-only or online-by-default. Estonia, for example, is very proud of their “digital nation state”, but also the Netherlands are progressing into being an e-government. Therefore, it is important to make sure no citizens are being excluded due to their lacking digital skills. 

Public - private collaborations
Another challenge of implementing e-governmental services is the increasing involvement of private companies. Citizens should be treated citizens, not as customers. Naturally, companies design for customers, not citizens. This perspective is imposed on governments as well, but this commercial narrative does not always fit the needs of citizens. While consumers have the freedom of choice, citizens cannot switch governments that easily once they are not happy with governmental services. Sofia Ranchordas points out this should be taken into account when public - private collaborations come into play in building an e-government. Therefore, a close observation of public-private collaborations is required and citizen treatment needs to be ensured. Public values need to be at the center of negotiation between private and public bodies. Sofia Ranchordas contributes to making those collaborations more balanced. She was appointed to a committee at the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations where she helps to provide guidelines on how data should be shared between private and public bodies.

Turning into an e-government is not happening overnight. Sofia Ranchordas is sure that regulators should focus on the fundamental rights that are already in place, since general standards last longer than strict rules. We do not necessarily need adjustments to law in order to regulate the collaboration between public and private organizations, says Sofia Ranchordas. Instead, regulation that is too strict widens the gap between government and society. Her research indicates the importance of deriving principal standards in collaborative efforts with citizens instead of putting strict rules in place. Governments need to promote an open-dialogue with citizens who are not digital literate and make their services more inclusive accordingly. Additionally, improving the populations’ digital literacy through workshops and courses promises to make the whole society ready for an e-government. Overall, Sofia Ranchordas poses a more user-centered approach to improve public trust in digital government. It is for sure that digital transformation does not stop at public bodies, but the approaches of governments differ clearly.