“Digital governmental services can make life easier, but not for everyone”

For over 15 years, Wolfgang Ebbers has worked as a researcher, professor, and advisor in user-centric and inclusive services. He has closely witnessed the rise of digital governmental services. Alongside Lidwien van de Wijngaert, another researcher, professor, and advisor, he is also involved in developing User Needs First’s Toetsingskader Inclusie, an instrument that helps measure how inclusive digital services are. What is inclusive service delivery, and why is it so important?

Wolfgang begins: “The inclusivity of digital services has become increasingly important. It’s becoming harder to avoid digital services and use alternatives. Fifteen years ago, that was still possible. Now, it’s nearly impossible.”

This presents challenges. “A large group of people cannot easily keep up or participate. Many people, for instance, struggle significantly with using smartphones, yet these devices are increasingly used by the government for services, just like other digital tools.”

What is inclusive service delivery?

This trend makes it difficult for these citizens to exercise their rights, fulfill obligations, and access utilities meant for them. “You want to design services in a way that this is possible.” According to Wolfgang, this is what inclusive services entail.

Inclusive services goes beyond accessibility, Wolfgang emphasizes. “Inclusive service delivery is more than accessibility. We have multiple guidelines to make services accessible. However, there’s a risk that these guidelines become a checklist. This checklist doesn’t consider the needs of specific groups of citizens.” This was also highlighted during the User Needs First Training. Aafke van Welbergen emphasized the importance of inclusive user research. It should complement accessibility guidelines.

Drawing from personal experience

Wolfgang is well-acquainted with the struggles of residents with governmental services. “For example, my parents really struggle with the DigiD app, a Dutch app for identity verification to access specific governmental services. They can only do something when my sister or I visit. This can be quite stressful, especially when it comes to taxes. We have to ask and verify everything. There’s also the risk that something stays unresolved for too long because it’s too difficult for them.”

Innovation brings improvements, but not for everyone

Still, Wolfgang cautions against viewing digital services as ‘difficult.’ We have a tendency to yearn for the past. But things weren’t always better, even if we sometimes think they were. “It’s not the case that digital services make life harder for everyone compared to ‘offline’ services. For many people, digital services actually make life easier. Online tax declarations in the Netherlands are much simpler now than the need to use paper forms in the past. Also, obtaining a birth certificate from the civil registry can now be done from home. So, digital services can indeed bring more convenience, but not for everyone.”

This final statement underscores the importance of inclusive service delivery. “Innovation will always exist. It’s an ongoing process. Sooner or later, there could be an innovation that you struggle with. Wouldn’t you also want to be able to use services in some way, even when an innovation goes beyond your capabilities?”

Wolfgang emphasizes the importance of structuring services in a way that everyone can participate. He for instance mentions considering 5 key themes for inclusive service design:

  1. Create simple and unambiguous tasks
  2. Make sure user needs come first in service design and development
  3. Services should be accessible and understandable
  4. Services should be accessible through multiple channels
  5. Help structures should be in place for those unable or unwilling to participate