E-GOVERNMENT is not just e-business on a larger scale. One of the most fundamental differences is that whereas businesses can, by and large, choose their customers, government cannot. The debate over the so-called “digital divide” is like the ghost at the e-government feast. For e-government to succeed fully, the dream of Internet access for all has to become a reality.
Governments are well aware that large and expensive e-projects will command little support if only a privileged minority benefits. As David Agnew of the Toronto-based Governance in the Digital Economy Project, which is supported by eight big IT firms and 20 national and local governments, argues: “If putting government online is just a way of reinforcing access for people who probably already have more opportunity to access government and decision-makers, then it hasn’t really been much of an advance after all.”
When Arizona’s Democrats held their state presidential primary online in March, it nearly did not happen—not because of security and authentication problems (although there were plenty of those), but because a pressure group called the Voting Integrity Project tried to have it banned. It almost persuaded a court that the vote would disenfranchise the state’s minorities, so should be ruled illegal.
Raise the spectre of the digital divide with the technology vendors and e-government champions within the public sector, and their brows furrow with concern—but not for long. They are, after all, professional technology optimists. But they also genuinely believe that many of the barriers to near-universal Internet access are falling, at least in economically advanced countries (though it is worth remembering that half the world has never even made a telephone call). Survey after survey has found that the main barriers to access are the fear that it is too expensive, that computers are too complicated and that somehow the whole thing is not really relevant or useful. Those optimists argue that, one by one, each of those perfectly legitimate anxieties is being overcome.
What’s the problem?
Too expensive? Internet-ready PCs can be bought for little more than $300—less than the price of most televisions, a device that has found its way into 99% of all American homes. Some Internet service providers (ISPs) are even giving PCs away in return for two or three years’ subscription, and other firms offer free PCs to users who agree to be bombarded by advertisements while online. True, access fees and telephone call charges remain high in some countries, but unmetered local calls are spreading from America to Europe, and free ISPs are evolving a range of different business models.
Too complicated and unreliable? That will soon be fixed by the proliferation of non-PC devices which provide access to the web. Among them will be simple terminals that do nothing more than run a browser and take all their applications from the web. These will be found in places such as schools, community centres, libraries and anywhere else that needs a robust machine and has an “always on” connection. An even simpler version is the kind of web kiosk with a touch-screen that is springing up in cities such as Singapore and Toronto.
Many people will be able to do as much business as they need over the Internet with inexpensive smart mobile phones, some of which will soon take the form of a wrist-watch that can be activated by speech rather than via a fiddly keypad. Many new mobile phones are already being loaded with WAP software and microbrowsers. Another way of getting online is by interactive digital television. Early services, such as BSkyB’s Open in Britain, are still clunky, but the technology will improve, and the set-top box decoders will often come free.
The more extreme technology optimists, such as Adam Thierer of the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington DC, say that the rapidly falling price of both computing power and bandwidth will in fact create a “digital deluge”, so any policies aimed at giving access to the “information-poor” are quite unnecessary and may be counter-productive. It is a comforting view, but probably quite wrong.
The latest release of the US Department of Commerce’s survey “Falling Through the Net” paints a disturbing picture in which the digital divide between rich and poor, white and non-white, well-educated and under-schooled seems, if anything, to have widened significantly during the five years in which this information has been collected. Among the examples of the digital divide today, the survey found that:
- People with a college degree are eight times more likely to have a PC at home and 16 times more likely to have Internet access at home than those with an elementary school education.
- A high-income household in an urban area is 20 times more likely to have Internet access than a rural, low-income household.
- A child in a low-income white family is three times more likely to have Internet access than a child in a comparable black family, and four times more likely than if he were Hispanic.
- A wealthy household of Asian descent is 34 times more likely to have Internet access than a poor black household.
- A child in a two-parent white household is twice as likely to have Internet access as a child in a single-parent household. If the child is black, he is four times more likely to have Internet access than his single-parent counterpart.
- Disabled people are nearly three times less likely to have home access to the Internet than people without disabilities.
In other words, although Internet penetration has risen across all demographic groups, the digital divide remains only too real. It has also become a poignant proxy for almost every other kind of disadvantage and inequality in society.
Chalk and cheese
It would be hard to find a better real-life symbol for the digital divide than the gulf between Silicon Valley’s leafy Palo Alto, home to dot.com millionaires, where the average house sells for nearly $700,000, and East Palo Alto, the desperate little town on the other side of Highway 101 that not long ago claimed America’s highest murder rate. Palo Alto’s website has 251 sections and is a paragon of e-government. Among many other things, it allows users to send forms to the planning department and search the city’s library catalogue. During storms, it even provides live video footage of flood-prone San Francisquito Creek. East Palo Alto’s site, by contrast, has only three pages, containing little more than outdated population figures and the address of City Hall.
The digital divide is not so much a question of access but of education. As Esther Dyson, an Internet pundit, puts it: “You can put computers in community centres, but only the literate people are likely to go use them.” Simpler, cheaper ways of getting on to the web will help, as will content that seems relevant to those who shun the Internet today—after all, the mobile phone has conquered all social classes, thanks to its sheer usefulness and simplicity. But even with enlightened policies such as America’s “e-rate”, which gives cut-price web access to schools and libraries, and the growing number of private-public partnerships to spread both technology and training in its use, there is a danger that the “digital deluge” may reach only those parts where the grass is already green. The same people who have wired PCs today will collect all the fancy new web gadgets that are coming in, and the rest will continue to go without.
So what does this mean for e-government architects? First, as IBM’s Todd Ramsey points out, they have to accept that some people, especially the elderly, will never want to deal with government—or indeed anyone else—online. That means some off-line channels will almost certainly have to be kept open for years after everything has moved on to the web. Second, they must find ways to allow even those diehards to benefit from the e-government transformation by improving the quality of the off-line channels and targeting them better. Not all the savings from electronic service delivery will be bankable.
Third, they need to think up incentives for those on the wrong side of the digital divide to take the leap. Government may be able to act as a catalyst in a way that the private sector cannot. What persuades most people to try the Internet is the promise that they will find something relevant to them. If the most convenient way of getting welfare benefits is online, a lot of people who had never thought of using the web will have a go.