People first, then tech: How context solves eGovernment platform problems

September 11, 2017

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 platform

'Want to receive government post digitally? Use the Mailbox from MyGovernment'

‘Want to receive government post digitally? Use the Mailbox from MyGovernment’

The 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 responsibility

Here’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 state

You 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.

Security has trumped our ability for contextual evaluation

When the platform sends ‘you’ve got mail notifications’, for security reasons it cannot send any information about what the contents of said letter are. They also cannot just forward the letters to your email address.

Whilst the move for data protection is good, in practice adding in this extra has removed the mechanisms people have used for getting contextual information about the message before opening it, i.e. knowing whether it is really important or not before reading it.

One effect is that some people mentioned that because they’d gotten so many ‘banal’ emails, from, say, a successful recurring monthly payment, they had been desensitised to the role of the mailbox and stopped checking it.

The other is that the extra step comes together with the government retiring the key visual signal that the entire country has used to evaluate whether the message is important or not: the infamous blue envelope.

The dreaded blue envelope had its uses
The dreaded blue envelope had its uses

Everybody knows the blue envelope means the tax man has business with you. It evokes looks of solidarity and sympathy from anybody who happens to be around.

dreaded blue envelope blauwe-envelop

The dreaded blue envelope

As the government announced the blue envelope would no longer be used by 2018, they received over 3500 complaints over two months on their special ‘farewell’ page, largely from seniors who didn’t have a computer.

Creating a digital equivalent of the blue-envelope in the ‘you’ve got mail’ notification is not complicated, It’s basically, ‘this is important.’ It just requires some thought for the person on the receiving end.

Of course, there are still straight up technical problems

The example prominently reported in the news was of a woman who receives her deceased husbands’ mails, but cannot view them, see what they’re about, nor put a stop to them. To do so would require a digital code sent to account owner’s mobile phone, but the deceased husband’s mobile phone contract was terminated a long time ago. There is essentially no back-up channel that could be used to circumvent these automatic rules when relating to the digital mailbox.

This is a methodological issue that can be fixed, again, with some attention.

It’s a similar to how research using mobile phone numbers as a proxy in developing countries is methodologically problematic because it ignores the fact that often one mobile is used for an entire family, and doesn’t account for the power dynamics at play within a family that may restrict most notably women and children’s access to the mobile phone. To say nothing of people who don’t use a mobile phone at all, either of out choice or circumstance.

 

If you’re curious about how people feel about the digitisation about interacting with the government, you can see more in this recent research paper.

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