Five practical ways governments can drive digital inclusion in Australia

Digital inclusion isn’t only about access to the web. It’s about using technology to enhance quality of life. In other words, digital inclusion has become synonymous with social inclusion.

Yet nearly three million Australians still remain unconnected to the internet today. This means they have no online access to their governments’ financial, education, health, social and entertainment benefits.

Australia Post, in collaboration with BehaviourWorks and Monash University, recently conducted a survey of 1,584 Australians, including 27 homeless people, to gauge demographic gaps in internet usage and recommend practical ways to increase digital inclusion.

The survey findings are covered in our insight paper, Australia’s pathway to a digital economy. The findings revealed that those more likely to lack access or to have poor digital skills are usually:

  • aged 65 and above;
  • live in a regional area;
  • have no tertiary education; 
  • are not in the workforce; or
  • have a disability.

These findings also helped pinpoint five ways in which the Australian government can foster greater digital inclusion among Australians as it pursues its mandate of digitising 80 per cent of its public services by 2020:

1. Provide better access and increase skills/knowledge

One of the main barriers to internet use is lack of access to digital services and/or the knowledge to use them.

Mark McCrindle, a leading Australian social researcher, believes that part of the problem for the 14 per cent of all households with no access the internet from home (a figure corroborated in the recent census) is that their service is often so slow and unreliable that it’s simply not functional.

“This means that while the rest of us are busy booking everything from plane tickets to pizzas online, there are many people who still find it easier to call up on the phone or walk into a Centrelink office and wait in a queue,’’ he says.

“This is not just people in regional areas but those in outer suburbs of our major cities. Improvements in physical infrastructure are therefore vital to get these people fully engaged in digital services.”

Paul Budde, one of Australia’s leading telecommunications analysts, meanwhile notes that the digital divide is closing, thanks largely to community centres, public libraries and local governments making free Wi-Fi available at places such as parks, bus stops, cafes and libraries.

“This network availability is doing a lot to connect people that otherwise may not be, and as a trend it’s likely to continue,” he says. He is encouraged by vast improvements in the quality of mobile networks and digital services that allow anyone with a smartphone to access the internet anywhere with a network connection.

“You used to need a PC or laptop to access the internet, but mobile phones are now fully digitally capable and there are plenty of apps available for people who want to educate themselves.”

“Most people have phones, yet they may not be aware of what they can do. Service providers are already doing a lot to educate their customers but they can always do more,” Budde adds.

2. Educate on the importance of accessing relevant services

Acquiring basic digital skills is no longer a choice in the digital age, Budde says, and those in regular contact with vulnerable groups such as the poor, the aged and the homeless are offering courses to help them engage, especially in the areas of healthcare and employment.

“These organisations are helping to stimulate digital inclusion but there is always more that governments can do. Centrelink, for example, can educate people more about the types of services available and teach jobseekers how to access the education they need to become more digitally savvy.”

The growth of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter over the past decade have also encouraged a lot of people to use basic digital technology when they otherwise might not have done so.

3. Provide better options

Survey respondents generally indicated they would use the internet more for things such as reading the news and online purchases “if better options were available’’ in variety, cost and service speed.

“Having the best available infrastructure such as the NBN is vital to reaching as many people as possible, but there are always going to be people who fall through the cracks,” Budde says.

“Often it’s those people in regional areas where it’s not commercially viable to build the fastest networks that miss out on the fastest broadband services available.”

4. Make services more convenient and easier to use

According to the survey, 18 per cent of respondents would be more inclined to use government and job searching sites if they were more user-friendly.

This is important because, as Budde says, “it’s no longer a technology issue but a people issue. Digital services are increasingly being integrated into community healthcare services, for example, and those not accessing available information online are missing out.”

McCrindle believes that while security is obviously important, the amount of information required by government websites can create unnecessary burdens, especially for older people who are not technology savvy.

“Banks and eCommerce vendors have led the way by simplifying the steps taken to use their services and government departments can learn from them by simplifying their user interfaces,” he says.

The best way, he says, for governments to engage people digitally is for their physical service providers to walk customers through the steps required for online registration.

“The NSW Department of Roads and Maritime Services is a good example of this, especially with regards to vehicle licence and registration renewal. They always have someone on hand to show customers how to use digital services in the simplest possible way.”

5. Improve privacy and security

Another interesting finding was how concerned respondents are about privacy and security, especially sharing personal information and using services such as banking.

Three in five respondents named privacy and security as their biggest worry with the former also including viruses, malware and content suitability, particularly for children, on their list of concerns.

Security breaches involving the publication of photos of celebrities held in private online accounts have definitely raised awareness of this issue in the general public.

But Budde believes that those who need to access basic government services should be less worried about security and more concerned about acquiring basic digital skills.

“I’m not downplaying the importance taking appropriate measures to be more secure online, but the rewards for those accessing government services and banking far outweigh the risks,” he says.

Understand the online behaviour of Australians better by reading our insight paper, Australia’s pathway to a digital economy.

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