Government Zero — How might citizens have unfettered access to government digital services?
Access to digital services is a powerful enabler and has enormous impact for individuals, organisations and governments. Ensuring that comprehensive and fair access is available for all is one of our biggest societal challenges.
Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, and Hans Vestberg, Verizon CEO, recently addressed this at The Xynteo Exchange, where participants were set the urgent challenge of constructing new growth models that create value for the many, not just the few.
The lack of digital access that Wales and Vestberg discussed aligns with findings from Snook’s research conducted on behalf of the Scottish Government, community organisations and charities. Wales and Vestberg highlighted that companies have a responsibility to do good with technology and need to address these issues. Consumers are beginning to pressure business and hold them to account.
Wales talked about Wikipedia Zero, an initiative to offer free access to Wikipedia that incurs no data charges. Wikipedia Zero attempted to address the difficulties that communities in Africa and Asia experience in accessing the internet, and when Wales quipped, “…but America has poor people too”. I was struck that, of course, Scotland does as well, and people experience the same daily struggle to access the internet and the services it provides.
Digital access is a huge hurdle for deprived communities
For deprived communities, access to the internet is a lifeline. It is now the only way to apply for certain benefits and the only way to fill the mandatory universal credit journal that job seekers must complete to show they have spent 30 hours a week looking for a job or risk losing their Universal Credit.
During our research, we heard repeatedly that monthly broadband and mobile phone contracts are out of reach for many. Not only can they be costly; there are often large penalties for ending a contract early, which is a risk that many on low incomes cannot afford to take in case their income drops. Most of the people we worked with instead relied purely on pay-as-you-go contracts, or sharing a phone and contract with others. Both of these situations result in limited internet access and contracts with little data that frequently runs out.
We listened to the stories of people in these situations who spend incredible time and resources to use the basic services they need to live. Some make maps of where they can get internet access in their city, then hop from one hotspot to the next, grabbing the maximum allowed 2 hours of free computer access in one library before moving on to another library. They catch the 30 minutes of free Wi-Fi the subway provides and stand outside cafés and shopping centres to use their Wi-Fi. This is an extraordinary effort, but is no way to look for a job or access essential benefits.
Design challenge: Government Zero
How might mobile phone network providers give zero-rated access to essential government services?
Time to do something
Forcing people who need to access these basic government services to get online is the equivalent of making them call a premium phone line to claim benefits. Everyone would agree that this would be appalling, yet the assumption that the internet is always accessible means vulnerable people are bound to pay the price or lose their benefits.
Technically, addressing this issue is possible. Operators already zero-rate their own websites so that customers can browse services and top up their accounts, even when they have ‘run out’ of data. Although now ended because it infringed net neutrality, the Wikipedia Zero project partnered with 97 operators in over 72 countries and both of the similar programmes of Facebook Zero and Twitter Access still operate today.
The websites on the gov.uk and mygov.scot domains that deliver these core services are primarily text-based, with little or nothing in the way of images or videos, meaning that they would not require a large resource commitment from operators. The potential customers who would benefit from accessing these services through a Government Zero programme are mainly pay-as-you-go customers, who are some of the highest value to operators when compared to those on monthly contracts. Thus, operators undoubtedly have an incentive to embrace Government Zero beyond the support it delivers to those needs.
Insights gained through our digital inclusion research tell us that overcoming the technical challenge is only a small part of the solution: people need access, devices, motivation and the skills to get online; and support to stay online through life changes. Previous initiatives have failed to have the intended impact, as they addressed only one aspect of this complex challenge. Government Zero must be designed to meet the needs of its users and stakeholders; to identify the key services that vulnerable users must access, and ensure they are always available.
We are reaching out to partners across government, communication providers, digital and community organisations, and businesses.
Would you be interested in joining the partnership? Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org