Seattle has led significant efforts toward technology access and adoption. In 2017, the city began providing grants to nonprofits for digital literacy skills training programs, affordable devices, and low-cost internet options.10 In 2021, it funded 15 projects with a total of US$480,000, including a technology loan program for older adults and laptop donations to underserved communities.11
Rural areas represent a particularly difficult challenge for reliable high-speed internet. In 2012, India launched a National Optical Fiber Network project to connect 250,000 villages, ensuring a minimum speed of 100 megabits per second (Mbps), at an estimated expense of US$8.24 billion.12 More than 180,000 villages have been covered so far.13
Since it often makes little economic sense for private internet service providers to build infrastructure in rural markets, agencies and nonprofits are working to establish decentralized, community-driven networks. In Uganda, for example, the nonprofit Battery-Operated System for Community Outreach (BOSCO) converts bandwidth from fiber optics to wireless and transmits it through a small network of 13 towers to rural communities up to 90 kilometers away, powering its equipment with solar energy. BOSCO operates 55 community centers, serving nearly 60,000 residents.14
Such innovations, as well as wireless technologies such as satellite-based internet, can improve access in hard-to-reach geographical areas. In 2020, the nonprofit Internet Society reported more than two dozen new and existing community networks around the world in regions including Argentina, the Galapagos Islands, Ethiopia, Georgia, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.15 Governments realize rural connectivity is a priority, but there is still more to do in this area.
Designing services for equitable access
Many government processes seem to be designed for their operators’ ease of use rather than for constituents’. This is not surprising, as staffers interact with the systems daily, while users pop in only occasionally—to file for unemployment insurance or apply for a passport, for instance.16 But, as the UK National Health Service website lead designer, Dean Vipond, says, “Working at speed is no excuse for cutting corners with usability and accessibility of a project.”17 Making these services truly user-friendly—particularly for those who lack digital literacy or high-speed access—requires a dramatic shift in service design.18
Consider the United States’ Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) program. For nearly 50 years, it has been a particularly effective antipoverty program, lifting nearly 5.6 million people out of poverty in 2018 alone. But more than a fifth of eligible taxpayers failed to file EITC claims in 2018; most of them belonged to low-income, less-educated, and non-English-speaking households.19
The IRS has altered the program many times over the years to make it easier for taxpayers to use, but millions who could claim the credit still haven’t. To identify hindrances to usage, New America’s New Practice Lab partnered with the New York Department of Taxation and Finance. Using human-centered design principles, they identified barriers such as limited knowledge of the credit, a high dependency on tax prep software or professionals, and the perception that inquiries from the IRS could constitute an audit. The New Practice Lab suggested simple tweaks: add clear language in communications with recipients, improve the formatting and fonts used in forms, customize letters for various taxpayer groups, and offer forms in more locally spoken languages.20
Australia’s Queensland government has created a plethora of human-centered design toolkits and resources for agencies, including guides for in-depth interviews, concept cards, and customer journey map templates.21 This journey-mapping tool helped the Department of Housing and Public Works visually map services—such as computers, meeting rooms, and children’s play areas—that a public housing office should provide.22 In addition, the Customer and Digital Group within Queensland’s Department of Communities, Housing and Digital Economy offers Queensland employees a free, two-day workshop on human-centered design.23
Digital infrastructure that supports broad access
Governments are also looking to improve access by transforming back-end operations and associated digital infrastructure. A unique digital ID system(see the sidebar, “India’s Aadhaar digital ecosystem”), for instance, can integrate client information across dozens of government systems. This, along with data-sharing, can reduce administrative challenges and enable the “once only” principle of human-centered design, where citizens and businesses need to provide information just once to access multiple government services.
Germany’s Refugee Digitization System, launched in 2016 to handle the arrival of more than a million refugees, collects relevant data (along with fingerprints as a legal identifier) at the first contact with a state agency and stores it in a central system. This system enables access to multiple services across government agencies, including housing, food assistance, and health care.24