Q&A: CAB’s Sacha Green on digital exclusion

Sacha Green, author of the Citizens Advice Bureau report on digital exclusion, tells Eldernet just how big the problem is and how we all can help to ensure no one gets left behind in the online rush.

As part of its campaign against digital exclusion, CAB has launched a petition asking election candidates to pledge to address the issue. How is that going?

The campaign is going well. We have over 2,000 signatures on our petition, but are keen to collect more. The petition is running online through ActionStation https://our.actionstation.org.nz/p/digitalexclusion, and we are also collecting signatures on paper petition forms at CABs around the country. We know how important it is to have more than one option for people to engage!

The petition follows the release of CAB’s report on the issue – what were its key findings?

Our report ‘Face to Face with Digital Exclusion’ showed that the rapid shift to doing life online, without adequate consideration of the needs of those who are digitally excluded, is disadvantaging some of our most vulnerable community members. Our clients’ stories revealed the range of barriers some people face when confronted with online processes.

Lack of access to the internet and low levels of digital literacy were definitely issues, but people were also being excluded because of difficulties with reading and writing, because of financial barriers including not having a means to pay online, and because of disability and language barriers. For others it was about not wanting to do things online and a feeling of frustration that their choices were being taken away. Māori and Pacific peoples were clearly over-represented among those experiencing digital exclusion, accounting for 20 percent and 17 percent of digitally excluded clients respectively.

The focus of our report was the impact of public services shifting to being primarily online. We saw clear evidence that the digitalisation of public services, along with the closure of public counters and the disappearance of paper forms, is making it hard for some people to participate fully in society. This was creating greater disadvantage for people who are already vulnerable, as well as feelings of frustration, isolation and exclusion.

How big do you think the problem is?

I believe the problems connected with digital exclusion are bigger than many people assume. Most data that looks at the scale of the problem focuses on access to the internet; however, as our report shows, this is just one aspect of digital exclusion.

In the 2018 Census, 14 percent of participating households stated they didn’t have access to the internet. This was an improvement on the previous Census, but as we know, the online focus of the 2018 Census excluded the very people that question was trying to capture. Over a three-month period CAB volunteers recorded 4,379 interviews with clients who were experiencing digital exclusion, and volunteers indicated this was just a snapshot of the issue. Where people do have digital devices, it’s often a mobile phone, which may not be suitable for reading and navigating large amounts of information or filling in online forms. Internet access can also be limited or unreliable, or based on the ability to gain free Wi-Fi access. Some people are able to make use of free computer and internet services in the community, such as in libraries and community centres, but not everyone is able to access these services or feels comfortable transacting online in these public settings.

Whatever the numbers are that we come up with, there’s also the reality that digital services are not the right response for every person or for every situation. This is particularly the case when people are under stress or when the stakes are high – something we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. With so much emphasis on ‘digital inclusion’ as the solution, we miss seeing that perhaps it’s the lack of value placed on ‘human’, people-centred services that is in fact the problem.

Is it just an issue for older people?

No. This was one of the significant findings of our research. Digital exclusion affects people across age demographics. While older people are clearly being impacted by the growing digital divide, many of the issues of digital exclusion also reflect wider issues of inequity in society. Younger people are also prone to the barriers that can span age, such as access and literacy issues, and to the injustices caused by things like discrimination and poverty. Also, as is the case across all age groups, there are some young people who prefer to fill out a paper form or speak to another person, rather than do things online.

It’s easy to see how giving up on paper and turning to the internet is attractive for government departments and big corporations. What are the alternatives other than winding back the clock?

We absolutely acknowledge the benefits of technology and that for many people, digital services are quicker, easier, and more convenient. There’s no doubt they also provide cost savings and efficiencies for government services and big business. We’re not suggesting that we wind back the clock, just that we plan for a future that brings everyone along. This is about supporting those who struggle so that they are able to participate fully in society. This is about making sure that alternative channels are available and aren’t buried or hidden, or seen as a failure in the system. If goverment and corporates are pulling the plug on their community-based, face-to-face and paper-based infrastructure, they need to ensure that there are still viable access points and support networks so that we are not leaving people behind.

Do you feel organisations such as CAB are being left to sort out the problems caused by the rush to digital?

We have no doubt that this is the case. There is a reliance on the CAB to be there and to be accessible, even when government services are not. It’s commonplace for government pamphlets, guides and websites all to point people towards the CAB as the place to go for help, sometimes with signs on their door after shutting up shop. CABs are also printing out thousands of pages of resources for people who still need paper-based options. The CAB bridges the gap to help people access the information and services they need. Unfortunately, there is little recognition by government and others of the additional demands this puts on CAB’s limited resources. That’s why, as part of our campaign, we’re asking for support to deal with the cost shifting that has resulted from government services going online.

Digital exclusion is part of a bigger issue of people feeling excluded from society for one reason or another. How can we address that?

Simply put, we need to put people and people’s needs at the centre of what we do, paying particular attention to the voices of those who are struggling the most. For government agencies and corporates this includes putting people at the centre of service design and delivery and not operating under an assumption that digital is best, or that inclusion is just about trying to make digital services better.

What’s one thing we can all do to make life easier for those feeling digital exclusion?

I can’t help but say, please support our campaign. We’re hoping that we can bring enough attention to this issue that politicians and others will take note and we can have a genuine conversation about the future we collectively want to work towards. We’ve heard the statement from some election candidates that “digital is inevitable”. This may be the case, but what we want to ensure is that this isn’t at the expense of our humanity.

About Sacha Green

Sacha Green
Sacha Green is the National Advisor – Legal & Strategic, for Citizens Advice Bureau New Zealand and is the author of the report Face to Face with Digital Exclusion: A CAB Spotlight Report into the Impacts of Digital Public Services on Inclusion and Wellbeing. Sacha has a long-term commitment to access to justice issues and is passionate about supporting and empowering individuals as well as advocating for positive social change.