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Beyond speed: Who is talking about access to e-government this election?

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Frustration! Bev Sykes on Flickr

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The problem of equitable access to high-speed Internet in Canada entered the election campaign on Wednesday, August 26, when Stephen Harper promised that a re-elected Conservative government would spend an additional $200 million to promote high-speed access in rural and remote communities. Although the promise is short on detail (what counts as high-speed Internet? Will the connection be affordable?), the recognition that digital access is central to the everyday lives of Canadians is welcome. But as I suggested in a previous post, digital access is about more than speed; it is also about a vision for digital inclusion that includes digital citizenship rights. One of the ways in which Canadians exercise these rights is through interaction with government agencies and services, and, according to Harper, this will increasingly be accomplished online.

But it is one thing to "connect Canadians to e-government" and quite another to ensure online government serves Canadians effectively and fairly. Increasingly, this responsibility is being outsourced to community groups and public libraries.

For example, when Malek, an older adult and artist, needed to apply for a disability pension, he was referred by Service Canada to the drop-in digital café at a local neighbourhood house to get help with the online application. Governments at all levels are reducing or eliminating face-to-face service but this referral was particularly ironic; the digital café was a former Community Access Program site established to support Canadians with digital access and instruction, but CAP was cut by Industry Canada in 2012 to most communities. Now supported in part by a short-term research project and the work of volunteers, the digital café is a busy place as people arrive for help to use email, fill in government forms, decipher government letters and apply for jobs online (the local provincial employment office also refers to the digital café their "clients" who need help writing and sending out resumes!)

On a Wednesday afternoon, Malek and Raj, the community outreach worker, sit side-by-side, squinting at a Service Canada letter that directs Malek to a website to apply for a Service Canada account. The first hurdle is to get a password the system will accept; the requirements are listed in a complex set of instructions down the right panel in tiny text. The next challenge is to work out which account number should be entered into the field, and to do so quickly lest the system times out and they must start again (this happens twice). Fields upon fields of personal information are solicited, followed by a legalistic disclaimer warning Malek of the dangers of sharing his private information. But of course, Malek has already shared everything with Raj so she can help him complete the application.

Such scenes play out countless times each day across the country, as trusted community volunteers do the invisible work of e-government access. The federal government is well aware that their services are "complex" and "not focused on the needs of Canadians." But with the exception of a Liberal Party promise to streamline and integrate e-government services, the problems of e-government access are missing from the election (The federal NDP digital policy was not available on the Party website as of August 27, 2015). Among issues that merit discussion: Is it appropriate for government to outsource their service responsibilities to adult literacy and other community agencies, while cutting the funding of these same organizations? Who is overseeing equity of access to e-government in a municipally funded public library system? How many people are currently unable to access government services to which they have a right, because they do not have someone like Raj to help them? What are the economic and social consequences of this for individuals and for Canadian society?

Federal, provincial and local governments see great benefit in conducting their affairs with Canadians online and with good reason. It's much more efficient to claim to offer core services through the safe distance of a screen, then to have to interact with people, or be accountable for the accessibility of these services. You can't protest to an automated email message when your EI application is refused.

But digital efficiency is not the same as digital rights. What we need in this election is for someone to articulate a vision of digital inclusion that goes beyond the digital management of populations and attends to the digital rights of all Canadians.

Photo: Frustration! Bev Sykes on Flickr

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