August 31, 2021

How Digital Government Promotes Inclusive & Accessible Services

Shawn Slavin |

Uncategorized

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:

Gender
Race
Ethnicity

 

Culture
Age
Education

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.

Chat   

As populations continue to rise, digital government agencies are discovering viable options to scale their delivery of citizen services. An effective way to improve the user experience for any organization or public agency is to enhance and expand available communication methods. Chatbots have demonstrated considerable success in achieving this goal. 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

Adding a virtual assistant service can elevate service delivery by providing an easy, intuitive avenue for users to get answers to their questions, help with their problems, or interact with your application. A powerful example can be seen in this IBM Watson-powered virtual assistant project – this was created in response to a call for solutions that could leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to improve the user experience of an Online Divorce Assistant. To dive deeper into the development of the project, check out the blog written by one of our Full Stack Developers. 

Web Apps

Web applications are a powerful, intelligent way to deliver services and information to users in an accessible format. Delivering services online also provides an avenue for citizens to access and engage with digital government agencies in a way that best suits their own needs. A great example of this in practice can be found in BC Registries and Online Services phased, multi-year modernization initiative. BC Registries and Online Services enables the registration of businesses, not-for-profit societies, cooperatives, personal property, and manufactured homes. By working in an agile manner and incorporating user feedback, the team delivered a responsive web-based application that feeds into a consolidated database. The application has a clean, modern user interface that makes it easier for both citizens and businesses to complete registrations with the province of BC and across other jurisdictions and manage accounts.

Mobile Apps

How do you make it more convenient for residents to use your services? And how do you ensure that the people logging into your services are actually who they say they are? Services BC was facing exactly these issues when they decided that one of the main goals they would like to focus on was “citizen convenience.” A powerful example of this is the BC Services Card Mobile App – a mobile application that digitizes the identity card BC issued to citizens, providing convenient and secure access to eHealth 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
Geography
Ability

 

Language
Situation

 

Income   document icon in red

Recent survey results released by the Pew Research Centre out of the U.S indicates a disparity in digital experiences of those with low incomes versus high incomes. 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.

Geography   

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

When traditional written or verbal communications are the only forms of communication available, they can be completely inaccessible to persons depending on the type of disability. 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

As we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic, governments had to use technology to ensure that people can still access existing and new services. While adoption of new technology certainly made government programs more accessible for some, for others it made programs less accessible compared to some of the more traditional service delivery channels (e.g., in-person). Designing and delivering truly inclusive and accessible programs does not mean that governments should abandon the existing ways they deliver services, 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 public servants’ “toolkits” expand, 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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