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25 September 2017

National Ombudsman of the Netherlands: Digitisation should not mean exclusion

Blog Decent Digitisation Human rights
Digitisation could very well exclude a segment of the Dutch population. We must prevent that at all costs. Government must ensure that everyone can participate, and it should make a special effort to include those who are unable to keep up.

By Reinier van Zutphen, National Ombudsman of the Netherlands, and Jeanine Verhoef (project coordinator)

Reading time: 4 minutes
Be sure to read the other articles in the Decent Digitisation series.

The world is digitising rapidly. People use their smartphones for messaging, to plot a route with Google maps, to shop online or to catch up with friends and family on Facebook. The fact that the Dutch government wants to support digitisation is both understandable and desirable. But digitisation also carries risks. For example, it could very well exclude a segment of the population. We must prevent that at all costs. Government must ensure that everyone can participate, and it must make a special effort to include those who are unable to keep up.

Illustrations Max Kisman
Illustrations Max Kisman

The Ombudsman’s conclusions

The Office of the National Ombudsman of the Netherlands has studied the topic of digitisation in recent years, specifically in projects focusing on the government’s digital transactions with citizens, digital communication from the Tax and Customs Administration, and the government’s online message box platform, as well as the digitisation of various government agencies. We are concerned about digitisation restricting people’s access to government.

In addition to digital channels, other options must remain for those people who do not have the necessary cyberskills or who want personal contact. Not every problem can be resolved digitally.

In addition, government should exploit the potential of digitisation to ‘personalise’ its public services. For example, digital channels can in fact make it easier for social workers to act on a client’s behalf. And government must realise how easy it is to make a mistake in the digital realm and assist people when a situation threatens to get out of hand.

Government must realise how easy it is to make a mistake in the digital realm
National Ombudsman of the Netherlands

Don't force people

We heard the following from Jan van Lieshout (70): ‘I’m a community caregiver and I take care of my sister-in-law’s administrative paperwork. She’s 83, lives alone, doesn’t have children and has some psychological issues. I receive and deal with her care allowance by post and that usually works out just fine. But it will be problematical if the Tax and Customs Administration expects my sister-in-law to arrange her tax matters online herself. Just applying for the DigiD login code will be a disaster. She can give me power of attorney to do that, but she doesn’t understand what it means. For example, when she receives the confirmation in the post, she’ll just throw it away.’

Offer a helping hand

When Corry (70) heard about the Message Box – a personal, online mailbox for digital communications from government organisations –  she wanted to know if it would be convenient for her. Out of curiosity, she surfed to the MijnOverheid [MyGovernment] website and clicked on a few options here and there. After a closer look, she decided that it all seemed a bit too complicated, so she closed the browser window. A few months later she received a letter stating that she had neglected to take her car in for its annual MOT several months back and she would now have to pay a heavy fine. She was shocked. She always kept close track of her affairs, but she had not received any letter reminding her of the MOT. She then discovered that the letter had been sent to her online Message Box. Without realising it, she had activated her account to receive all government communications there.

Offer digital options for those who want it

Piet (43) acts on a power of attorney for about a dozen clients – people who are unable to take care of themselves. He would like to communicate with government organisations digitally on behalf of his clients. That would make things much easier for him. Now, post from these organisations is sometimes sent to his clients’ homes instead of to his office. Not all of his clients are capable of managing their post, however; important documents get lost, and problems ensue. Unfortunately, it is not possible to administer matters for his clients digitally because he cannot apply for a business DigiD login code, and because only a limited number of government organisations permit him to act digitally on a power of attorney.

Expectations

Government expects a great deal of people. It expects them to participate and to keep their affairs in order. But participation requires a considerable level of skill these days. People are obliged to keep track of complex financial and other paperwork; they must be digitally competent; they must have a good command of written and spoken Dutch; and they must be capable of assessing whether or not a specific situation applies to them. A nodding acquaintance with conflict management is also handy, as well as some knowledge of how interests are assessed. Not everyone can do all of this or meet all these expectations.

Not everyone can move with the times

People now have 24x7 access to the online forms they need to apply for official permits, government allowances or care assistance. About 80% are able to do so without a hitch, but there are still many people who are unable to manage in the digital world. It isn’t always possible to describe someone’s personal situation by ticking boxes on a form. When people enter the wrong values, they get an error message but don’t know what they’re doing wrong. And so they give up. Or they call the National Ombudsman.

Government ought to look at digitisation from the public’s perspective
National Ombudsman of the Netherlands

The public’s perspective

Government therefore ought to look at digitisation from the public’s perspective. Will digitising a service actually make it better or easier for the people who use it, and in what way? Only after it has answered these questions should it proceed. After all, government doesn’t operate in a free market; people can’t turn to a competitor to file their tax forms or apply for a passport.

That means that government must do its best for everyone. It should work a bit harder for those who are unable to keep up with the times. That is one of the tasks that the responsible government of an inclusive society should take upon itself. It should always offer personalised services, an alternative communication channel, and personal contact for those who require it.

We will continue to remind the government of its obligations in that regard and persuade it to look at digitisation from the public’s perspective.

Visit the website of the National Ombudsman of the Netherlands. 

Read more

Be sure to read the other articles in the Decent Digitisation series, and the related reports: