Digital Assumptions

On 6 March 2018 New Zealanders are required to fill in their census forms. This important information gathering exercise, undertaken by the Statistics Department, is necessary for Government planning and the provision of services.

In the past on the day decreed, families or individuals would fill in their census forms – earlier sent out in the mail – providing information that was accurate on that day. The forms would be collected by an official and taken away for analysis.

This year things are different. The first thing is that the forms will not be mailed. What citizens will receive will be a letter with an access code. This is a unique identifier that allows the individual to complete a census form online. The details of the process may be found here

And herein lies a problem.

Online completion of a census form and the provision of census information is the default position. If a citizen doesn’t want to complete a census online he or she may phone an 0800 number and hard copy census forms will be sent out, but the time frame is tight and the postal service is slower than it used to be. The distribution of access codes commenced on 23 February. I write this on 25 February and haven’t seen mine yet. My next postal delivery is on Tuesday 27 February (daily postal deliveries ceased some time ago) so if I elect to complete the census in hard copy I have just over a week to have the forms delivered.

And if the forms are not with me and if I don’t have the facility or ability to complete the census online I will have committed an offence. And that is another significant problem with the digital default position.

The digital default position relies on a number of assumptions. It assumes that participants have a device that allows them to complete the census online. In New Zealand that assumption may be correct given the proliferation of smartphones and other digital devices. Then there is the assumption that most citizens will have access to the Internet via an Internet Service Provider (ISP). Those that do not are excluded from the process. Then there is the assumption that citizens will be comfortable completing on online census and committing their information to the vagaries of the Internet. What assurances do citizens have that their information is secure?

The digital divide is a reality in New Zealand as it is elsewhere. This is recognised by our Minister for Broadcasting and Communications, Ms Clare Curran who wishes to see an end to the digital divide.  Notwithstanding studies that suggest a high uptake of the Internet in New Zealand, many of our citizens, through no fault of their own or as a result of disabilities, are unable to simply go online and complete the census. And if they don’t have the presence of mind to ask for the hard copy census forms and complete them personally or with an ammanuensis then they may find themselves in the unenviable position of having committed an offence.

Admittedly, the prosecution does not automatically follow, and Statistics Department people will perform a followup if forms have not been completed – digitally or in hard copy. But the fact remains that there is potential liability for an offence. And that liability in my view should not arise from a digital default based on a number of possibly incorrect or nuanced assumptions.

So what could have been done. One solution could have been to send out the hard-copy census forms along with an access code so that those who wished to complete the census online could do so. Those who wished to complete the census in hard copy by way of preference or an inability to complete online could do so. Digital by default should come later when there is an assurance that the digital divide has decreased.

An alternative, if the Department insisted on the digital default position, would have been to send the access codes out a week earlier. The assumption that the postal service will get the papers to those that request them on  time is not a valid one.

But there is a bigger issue here and it relates to the move to provide government services online. As has been noted, the digital divide is a reality in New Zealand. The sad thing is that often those most in need of government services fall on the wrong side of the digital divide.

I have advocated in the context of facilitating public access to legal information online –  statutory and case law information – that there should be dedicated kiosks provided in public areas like libraries, public buildings, government buildings shopping malls and the like so that those who do not have the necessary devices or accounts can access information free of charge. As we move towards the delivery of online legal services and even online courts and dispute resolution services, kiosks become a vital aspect not only of access to law but also access to justice.

The online completion of the census could also be undertaken via such kiosks as may many other government services.

The proposition is a simple one – if the State is going to move to digitisation of its services and required the fulfillment of citizens’ obligations by online means, the State is obliged to provide the means to facilitate such obligations for all its citizens. To do otherwise would be to create a class of digitally disentitled.

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