People first, then tech: How context solves eGovernment platform problems
This post draws on classic social perspectives to present a whirlwind tour of how understanding context is crucial to designing more effective platforms. Particularly as the Netherlands is one of the most digitised nations advanced in digital governance and others are following suit. Right now, the major problem is that people are getting fined for things they didn’t know they were responsible for.
Quick outline: Dutch eGovernment platformThe GDI platform for the Netherlands is called MijnOverheid (MyGoverment), and is meant to centralise and streamline how people communicate with the government. If you have signed up for it, the platform creates a central, secured repository online your personal data and an online mailbox to which any letters from the government get sent. The platform is used by city councils and national government ministries, but also by the tax authority, civil data registration, pension funds, water organisations (ever-important in the Netherlands), cadastral information, car registration, study loans, and the list grows.
Huh? A fine? Did I get told about that?!Last week the national ombudsman published a report titled ‘Hoezo, Mijn Overheid‘? Which translates into ‘How so, My Government’? The play on words highlights the question of ownership and inclusion in digitsation, as the report shows how problematic the platform has become.
By far what gets the most attention is that people are getting fined for not responding to important letters they didn’t know they had received. (!!!)Despite significant pressure/incentivisation to use the platform, the report found that the average citizen still doesn’t use it or check their messages.
Changing the rules and shucking responsibilityHere’s the first catch: either you have to tick the box to allow the platform to send you an email notification when ‘you’ve got mail’, or you have to check the platform manually to see if there’s any news. This choice to opt-in means many people have simply been receiving mail into this mailbox without ever checking it or being notified, and then missing highly important paperwork. Snail mail being used only for the unwelcome news that you’re being fined. The larger issue here is that the change in platform design shifts the burden of responsibility to the citizen. Granted you can argue that you’re also responsible for opening those bills that have been piling up and you’ve so far successfully ignored, but that has a very different feel to it than not actually knowing you’re responsible for choosing. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse for breaking it, but systems and the communication strategies we use to tell citizens about them can be designed to significantly reduce the chances of people not-knowing. As this is an eGovernment platform, the state has a responsibility to design systems that look beyond just technical functionality and possibility but also to how people interact with technology in order to really make efficiency and security work.
Don’t underestime the physical-ness of interacting with the stateYou cannot assume that a digital mailbox is the same as paper letters falling onto your front doormat.
Everybody who’s ever received a birthday card in the mail knows that an e-card just doesn’t quite cut it.The change from physical to digital requires checking assumptions about how we interact with objects. We likely to treat a piece of paper differently than an email because it quite literally and metaphorically has weight. This is the same principle as Latour’s hotel key – hotels will attach really heavy, bulky and annoying keychains to traditional keys to reduce the likelihood of you forgetting about it and walking out. More importantly though, there are only so many ways you get avoid seeing what lands in your mailbox or your doormat, but there are many different ways of getting around seeing what’s in your digital mailbox. This harkens back to comments from already 2-3 years ago that there needs to remain a safety net for the elderly or those with limited digital literacy, echoing calls that access is not the same as empowerment.