E-Government and the Digital Divide

I read with interest today that President-Elect, Barack Obama, intends to deliver weekly updates to American voters via YouTube.  Although this is a laudable attempt to reach out to the American people, it will present issues in terms of the growing divide between those that are described as ‘information rich’ and the ‘information poor’.  Not only is this a dilemma facing the future US president, it is a dilemma faced in all Western nations as e-government becomes an increasingly popular method for bringing the electorate and government closer together.

Despite being one of the most developed nations on Earth, the United States rather lags behind other countries when it comes to broadband access.  According to one estimate, 57% of American households have broadband access (this compares to 65% of UK households) making the United States 15th out of the top 30 industrialised nations.  This presents a major problem for countries such as the US and the United Kingdom that are keen to develop e-government.  If broadband coverage remains at such low levels, it is hard to imagine how any government could substantially increase the role of e-government in the political process.

The UK government has already introduced a range of services for those that have a broadband connection.  Provided you do have such a connection, you can purchase car tax discs, access information on public services at Directgov, interrogate statistics at the website for the Office for National Statistics, watch YouTube clips from Number 10 Downing Street and you can even create an e-petition on the official website of the Prime Minister’s Office.  If you do not have broadband (or, for that matter, a computer) then you do not have access to these services, effectively rendering a two-tier system and therein lies the problem with the growth of e-government.  There will be a sizeable proportion of the public that do have access to these resources and a sizeable proportion who do not.  This is where internet access in public libraries becomes so vital.  For many, this is the only way that they can freely access information that is otherwise unobtainable.  If the digital divide is going to be tackled, public libraries must be at the forefront of the drive to address the imbalance between the information rich and the information poor.  It is only when this divide is suitably addressed that e-government can be successful in bringing government and people closer together.

Whilst it is encouraging that the future President sees opportunities to use modern technology to bring the people closer to the workings of government, one wonders how those who do not have access to the internet will benefit.  According to the previously quoted statistics, 43% of Americans do not have access to broadband and, therefore, will be unable to view these broadcasts.  Instead, they will rely on rather more traditional ways of receiving such information (newspapers, broadcast media etc) which tend to be filtered and lack the personal nature of an internet clip.  As the future President also plans to

put videos of government meetings online, have officials hold online ‘town hall meetings’ and create an accessible internet database of government spending so that the public can track their tax dollars themselves, [Guardian]

it is vital that the digital divide is addressed if e-government is to be a serious proposition.  If not, the divide will be entrenched and a considerable percentage of the population will be excluded from the political process.  Public libraries can play a massive (and vital) role in addressing this imbalance, but it also requires action taken by government.  Only then can the digital divide be closed and universal e-government can be a reality.

Broadband ‘failing customers’

Been a bit slow to pick up on this report by the BBC on the problems associated with poor service standards amongst internet providers.  Of course, this is a very serious problem in an age where more and more people rely on the internet as a primary source of information.  It is up to Ofcom and the government to ensure that information is accessible for all, as well as ensuring that internet service providers are censured for failure to deliver their contractual obligations.  Without putting meaasures in place, there is a very real danger of an increased divide between the digital haves and the digital have-nots.