June 6, 2023

We hear the phrase “digital transformation” a lot these days. It’s often used to describe the process of replacing functions and services that were once done face-to-face by human beings with online interactions that are faster, more convenient and “empower” the user .

But does digital transformation really deliver on those promises? Or does the particular seemingly relentless digitalisation of life actually reinforce existing social divides and inequities?

Take banking, for example. Where customers once made transactions along with tellers at local branches, now they’re encouraged to do it all on the internet. As branches close this leaves many, especially older people , struggling with what was once an easy, everyday task.

Or even consider the now common call centre experience involving an electronic voice, menu options, chatbots and a “user journey” aimed in pushing clients online.

As organisations plus government agencies in Aotearoa New Zealand and elsewhere grapple along with the contact to become more “digital”, we have been examining the consequences with regard to those who find the process difficult or marginalising.

Since 2021 we’ve been working with the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) and talking with public and private sector organisations that use digital channels to deliver solutions. Our findings suggest there is much still to be done to find the right balance between the particular digital and non-digital.

The particular ‘problematic’ non-user

The dominant view right now suggests the pursuit of a digitally enabled society will allow everyone to lead a “frictionless” life. As the government’s own policy document, Towards a Digital Strategy regarding Aotearoa , states:

Digital tools and providers can enable us in order to learn new skills, transact with ease, and to receive health and well-being support from a time that suits us plus without the need to travel from our homes.

Of course, we’re already experiencing this new world. Many public and private services increasingly are available digitally by default . Non-digital alternatives are usually becoming restricted or even disappearing.

Read more: The digital divide leaves millions at the disadvantage during the coronavirus pandemic

There are two underlying assumptions to the view that everyone can or should interact electronically.

First, it implies that will people who can not access electronic services (or prefer non-digital options) are problematic or even deficient in some way – plus that this can be overcome simply through greater provision of technology, training or “nudging” non-users to get on board.

Second, it assumes digital inclusion – through increasing the provision of electronic services : will automatically increase social inclusion.

Neither assumption is necessarily true.

‘Digital enforcement’

The CAB (which has mainly face-to-face branches throughout New Zealand) has documented a significant increase in the number of people who struggle to access government services because the electronic digital channel was the default or only option.

The bureau argues that access in order to public services is a human right and, by implication, the move to digital public services that aren’t universally accessible deprives some people of that right.

In earlier research, we refer to this form of deprivation as “ electronic enforcement ” – defined as a process of dispossession that will reduces choices for individuals.

Read more: Digital inequality: why can I enter your building – but your website shows me the door?

Through our current research we find the reality of a digitally enabled society is, in fact, far from perfect and frictionless. Our preliminary findings point to the need to better understand the outcomes associated with digital transformation at a more nuanced, individual level.

Reasons vary as to why the significant number of people find accessing and navigating online services difficult. And it’s often an intersection of multiple causes related to finance, education, culture, language, trust or well-being.

Even when given access to digital technology and skills, the complexity of many online requirements and the chaotic life situations many people experience limit their ability to engage with electronic digital services in a productive plus meaningful way.

The human factor

The resulting sense of disenfranchisement and loss of control is regrettable, but it isn’t inevitable. Some organisations are now looking for alternatives to a single-minded focus on transferring solutions online.

They’re not completely removing call centre or even client support staff, but instead using a digital technology to improve human-centred service delivery .

Read more: ‘Sorry, I don’t understand that’ : the trouble with chatbots and how to use them better

Other organisations are considering partnerships with intermediaries who can work with individuals that find engaging with online services difficult. The Ministry of Health, for example , is supporting a community-based Māori health and social providers provider to establish a digital camera health hub to improve local access to health care.

Our research is continuing, yet we may already see evidence ~ from the CAB itself in addition to other large organisations – of the particular benefits of moving away from an uncritical concentrate on electric transformation.

By doing so, the goal is to proceed beyond a new divide between those who are digitally included and even excluded, together with instead to encourage social inclusion in the digital age. That method, organisations could still move forward technologically : but not at the expense of the humans they serve.

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