October 1, 2021

How Digital Government Promotes Inclusive & Accessible Services

Shawn Slavin |


Over the last few years, the Canadian Federal and Provincial governments have taken a more proactive approach to ensure the services they design and deliver meet the diverse needs of the population. One of the more common methodologies is Gender Based Analysis Plus (GBA+), a process designed to analyze how people experience a government policy or program. The approach considers how all of a person’s identity factors intersect to impact how they uniquely perceive and engage with digital government services. 

These factors include:




While GBA+ focuses largely on what governments deliver (i.e. the policy or program), consideration also needs to be given to how it is delivered. Many governments have demonstrated their commitment to building more inclusive and accessible programs for its people, in part, through a vision of digital transformation.

A Shift in the Right Direction

I’d like to highlight two great examples of governments implementing this vision of digital transformation:

Content & Resources

The Government of Canada Digital Standards: Playbook

The Government of Canada Digital Standards: Playbook

The government’s shift to become more agile and user-focused. This guides teams to design digital services that best serve Canadians.

The government’s shift to become more agile and user-focused. This guides teams to design digital services that best serve Canadians.

Content & Resources

The BC Government’s Digital Framework

The BC Government’s Digital Framework

This framework sets an overarching direction – the guiding policies, objectives and actions – that will accelerate transformation into a digital government.

This framework sets an overarching direction – the guiding policies, objectives and actions – that will accelerate transformation into a digital government.

These digital strategies are pushing the public sector to think beyond just websites and PDF forms. They introduce modern technologies in order to meet the changing needs and expectations of the population: chat, virtual assistants, web apps, and mobile apps.


Chatbots provide the ability to scale up a “personal touch” when navigating a service. That can be helpful for any user who doesn’t understand the internal workings of an agency, but is particularly helpful for lower-literacy users who could be overwhelmed by a page full of text. For example, The Public Services Health & Safety Association (PSHSA), a transfer payment agency of the Ontario government’s Ministry of Labour Training and Skills Development, utilized an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered chatbot to better serve customers by addressing their occupational health and safety training and consulting questions. You can learn more about this modernization initiative here

Virtual Assistants

Going beyond chat for navigation, a virtual assistant service walks a user through accessing a service as if they had a government employee sitting next to them. A powerful example can be seen in this Online Divorce Assistant powered by IBM Watson that was created in response to a call for solutions that leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to improve user experience. Read an overview of the project here or take a deep dive into the technology explained by one of the developers. 

Web Apps

Web applications are a powerful, intelligent way to deliver digital government services and information to users in an accessible format. Web accessibility standards and reactive design ensures that users can access these services using anything from screen readers to phones to dual monitors. One example is BC Registries and Online Services’ phased, multi-year initiative to modernize the registration of businesses, not-for-profit societies, cooperatives, personal property, and manufactured homes. By doing extensive user research and user testing, and employing modern web technology, the team is delivering a responsive web app accessible both for users who only access it every few years and large firms that use it dozens of times a day.

Mobile Apps

Some people believe that you must sacrifice security for convenience with digital services, but Services BC is proving them wrong with the BC Services Card Mobile App. Online authentication for BC digital services has become more convenient and accessible over time, at first requiring users to visit a physical location for identification and now permitting users to submit verification using their mobile device’s camera. This has enabled purely online access for medical records, driver licensing, school records, and more.

Below are five examples of how digital transformation supports public servants in their commitment to GBA+:






Income   document icon in red

A recent survey of U.S. users by the Pew Research Centre highlighted the digital divide: More than 40% of low income earners do not have a desktop computer or home internet, which means that there is greater reliance on smartphones for online access than other income earners. Governments’ adoption of mobile apps ensures that those who may rely on government services do not face additional barriers to accessing information or programs.


While governments have made it standard practice to post most of its information online, there are communities with unreliable or no internet access. One of the major benefits of a mobile app is that offline capability can be added – once the app is downloaded to a device it does not require an internet connection while in use, which means that people can still access important government information.

Ability   web settings icon in red

Non-digital forms of communication may be less accessible for some people. Touch screen interfaces are easier to use for many people with fine motor skill challenges. Mobile devices include zoom and screen reader functions to help people with visual impairments. Modern technologies provide more options for individuals, allowing them to engage with government services using the form of communication that works best for them.

Language   checklist icon in red

The 2016 Canadian census identified more than 100 languages as citizens’ first language. While online translators (e.g. Google Translate) are making government website content more accessible and inclusive, citizens with different language needs have to take additional steps to translate other government materials (e.g., documents, forms). The extra steps and complexity required for citizens to translate government documents and forms by themselves invariably lose some people at each step of the process, leading to lower uptake and greater noncompliance. Similar to website content, web apps and mobile apps are more inclusive as language translation can be done directly through the application itself.

Personal Situation   

The ability to access government services can look different for everyone depending on their life situation:

Do they have
any children
or dependents

Are they a single-parent family

Do they work more than one job

Do they work outside of regular business hours

Do they rely on public transport

With mobile and web apps, citizens have greater flexibility to easily engage with government programs outside of regular business hours from wherever they are.

Government Modernization – Accessibility For All

During the COVID-19 pandemic, physical distancing requirements forced all citizens to use technology to access government services. While the adoption of new technology certainly made government services more accessible for some, for others it made services less accessible. Designing and delivering truly inclusive and accessible services does not mean that governments should necessarily abandon their existing service delivery channels, but rather expand them. 

Despite the progress that we’ve seen governments make, the road ahead is still a long one – there are thousands of existing programs, forms, and processes that need modernization. While digital transformation will not happen overnight, it is heartening to see expanded toolkits available for service delivery, and a culture shift within the public sector to ensure programs and services are meeting the needs of all people they serve. 

“Technology is changing government, offering the promise of services that are better, faster, and more tailored to the needs of our diverse communities. Digital government is about using modern tools and technology to deliver great government services.”

Jaimie Boyd, (former) Chief Digital Officer for the Government of British Columbia

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