Public services are increasingly being brought online, further spurred by the Covid pandemic[i]. Older people (aged 65+) form an important and rapidly expanding segment of digital services users. Generations who grew up, studied, and started their working careers without any digital technology are increasingly expected to use it now in private and public environments. The latest Ministerial Declarations on eGovernment[ii] make clear that while government will remain committed to deploying service-oriented, reliable, and innovative eGovernment services, the success of a modern digital government lies in the ability to involve all members of our society — including those who find it difficult to keep pace.
This article continues the discussion by asking how we can assure an inclusive digital government, with equal access, that is respectful of the needs of society’s growing elderly segment.
More older people are unequipped for digital
A quick look at the statistics[iii] reveals that people are living longer than ever before, and the proportion of older people (aged 65+) versus those within a working-age population is growing. For example, in the European Union, roughly one third of the population will be aged 65+ in 2050 (increasing from 90.5 mil in 2019 to 129.8 mil in 2050) while the working-age population is predicted to shrink by 13.5% in that same period. Further, a lack of skills or knowledge is one of the major reasons (37% in age 65-74) for older people not submitting online eGovernment forms[iv]. This strongly correlates with the statistics suggesting only 33% of those aged 55-74 and 28% of the retired and the inactive possess at least basic digital skills[v]. These figures make clear that digitization of public services poses a risk of exclusion to a large group of people.
The user journey for eGovernment services is not ‘elderly-centric’
Over the past decade we have seen continuous digitization of public services in all domains. The annual eGovernment Benchmark[vi], performed by Capgemini Invent for the European Commission on a yearly basis, depicts a clear trend on how governmental services are delivered online. As it stands, 8 out of 10 public services are delivered online — e.g. 93% of EU governments offer online pension services — and the user-friendly provision on mobile devices has leapfrogged in recent years. But what does the benchmark tell us about the design of these online services; how well do they serve user needs, and in particular, the needs of the elderly?
We have drawn four conclusions from the eGovernment Benchmark findings:
- eGovernment websites are not accessible (only 16%) and this is likely causing serious issues for older people trying to access online services — and all other users with or without disabilities.
- Users are not properly informed about the service itself. They would benefit from knowing how long the process will take and when they can expect a response. A lack of transparency might cause users to drop the online journey and unnecessarily provoke requests for support and help, adding to the cost of service delivery.
- Online identification is on the rise (74% of services), but older people often still see this as a barrier to using online services (12%). This could be caused by single-sign-on options being provided in less than half of the services, as well as a lack of digital savviness amongst elderly users.
- Online forms are not sufficiently simplified to make it easy for any user to fill and submit. Governments could do more to prefill data they already know about the user, as well as to further reduce the information asked for to only that which is strictly necessary.
Five recommendations for an inclusive aging digital society
It is clear that while online offerings of public services are high, there are various signs the user experience is not designed to match the needs of older citizens. Combined with the low digital maturity of the older age group, this brings a clear risk of excluding a segment of users that is growing in volume. How do we ensure an inclusive aging digital society respecting equality amongst all citizens?
- Training to increase digital skills amongst older people. Training in digital skills would not only increase the usage of eGovernment services but, in a broader sense, ensure older people can participate in a digital society at large (communicate online, ecommerce, etc.). It would provide them with the confidence to use online services and tools. It might also help to increase awareness of the available online services so that people have the option of making a conscious choice of when (not) to use the online channel. On this note, non-users include those people who simply refuse to use the online channel. One of the reasons for this could be unfamiliarity with digital tools, along with language barriers and a lack of understanding of how society functions in general[vii]. Moreover, digital skills might keep some of the elderly active on the labor market longer, which could partially solve the foreseen challenges. Why not start a dedicated ‘office for the seniors’? This is something that has proved effective in New Zealand[viii].
- Design ‘elderly-centric’ eGovernment services. There is much ground to win since there is more to eGovernment than merely putting services online. They need to be accessible, usable, intuitive, simple, and transparent — which they are not sufficiently, as demonstrated above. It also means they need to be well designed too. We found that only 1 in 5 governments actively invites users to have a say in the digital service design. Inviting older people to usability tests is part of the solution, as Denmark shows with its senior citizens focus groups to test e-health solutions[ix]. This is actually true for both online and offline service design. Providing dedicated portals for elderly to support the online journey also proves effective, as Australia’s “Aged Care” page demonstrates[x].
- Provide effective online and offline support. Offline support is particularly important when the digital skills level of older people is relatively low: libraries and community centers have demonstrated their added value as places where older people are helped and trained in using online services in various countries. The UK has a program where kids teach the elderly[xi], and Korea deploys robots to help seniors using digital services[xii]. Whereas online support and help are in place for most services (98%), there is no data on whether this is sufficiently helping older people. The research hasn’t looked into, for instance, the opportunity or threat of chatbots for older people, which in the world’s most digital countries — Estonia[xiii] and Korea — is seen as a solution to increase user experience.
- Increase trust in digital government. Trust (or lack of it) is a major barrier to using online services. Providing full transparency of personal data balances the increasing storage and use of data by governments. Governments can build trust if they allow users to understand what data is used and for which purpose, by whom and when. Importantly, we also need to address new forms of cybercrime that are especially a threat to vulnerable groups. Thirdly, the cybersecurity of public websites can be improved. Our research showed poor basic cybersecurity hygiene on almost all of the 2000+ websites in the sample. Some governments are addressing this. For example, the Dutch government developed a testing tool and proactively supports public entities to increase the cybersecurity of their websites[xiv].
- Ease the use of delegation for online services. 43% of those aged 65-74 indicated that they delegated use of a particular service to someone else or a professional. This begs the question of how well governments are handling these delegations — and if it is safe and secure[xv]. A great example comes from Denmark, where a digital power of attorney enables family members to notify change of address or to apply for housing benefits on behalf of their older relative[xvi].
Paving the way to success
As a concrete next step to improve the situation, governments should prioritize services that are more relevant for older people (e.g. health, pensions, etc.) and asses how well they perform on the above mentioned points, while at the same time ensuring sufficient access to training and support. Managing this successfully will not only satisfy a large part of the electorate, it will also increase the efficiency of the public administration. Using an old African proverb[xvii]: “Those who respect the elderly pave their own road toward success”. A clear win-win situation!
Find out more
- Read the full eGovernment Benchmark report here
- Contact the authors by email:
|Niels Van Der Linden
|Teddy van Eijk
[i] McKinsey estimates that the Covid19 pandemic has accelerated digitization by 7 years: https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/how-covid-19-has-pushed-companies-over-the-technology-tipping-point-and-transformed-business-forever
[ii] Berlin Declaration: https://digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/news/berlin-declaration-digital-society-and-value-based-digital-government ; Lisbon Declaration: https://www.lisbondeclaration.eu/
[iii] Eurostat (2020), Ageing Europe – statistics on population developments, from: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Ageing_Europe_-_statistics_on_population_developments#Older_people_.E2.80.94_increasingly_old_and_with_growing_dependency
[iv] Eurostat Household Survey – https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-eurostat-news/-/edn-20210306-1
[v] Digital Economy and Society Index Report 2021 — Human Capital. https://digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/policies/desi-human-capital
[vii] Libraries combatting digital exclusion, Linköping University, https://liu.se/en/news-item/bibliotek-minskar-digitalt-utanforskap
[xv] Dutch example that illustrates how receivers of elderly sometimes commit fraud to help those in their care: https://www.trouw.nl/binnenland/bewindvoerders-overtreden-noodgedwongen-de-wet-met-digid-inlogs~b988bc7d/