Carolyn McCully (left) and Trevor Woon of Citizens Advice Bureau Whanganui. Photo / Bevan Conley
Whanganui residents who help others access online services say the digital shift of ministries has left many community members in the dark.
A Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) petition calling for accessibility and
inclusion standards for civil servants were debated by politicians in parliament for an hour last week.
The CAB petition challenged the government’s approach to its digital transformation of the public service – including removing agencies from being physically present in communities, said CAB deputy chief executive Andrew Hubbard.
The petition collected 7394 signatures.
Citizens Advice Bureau Whanganui chairwoman Carolyn McCully said government departments were no longer providing assistance in the same way as before.
“They don’t send out forms and they insist on things being done online.
“The reality is that there is a large segment of the population that is still not, for various reasons, able to participate in this.”
A report released by CAB in 2020 stated that over a three-month period, the organization recorded 4,379 requests where the customer experienced digital exclusion, or 10% of all requests.
This could mean a lack of access to a computer, literacy, language, finances or a disability.
Eighteen percent of people aged 60 to 69 were excluded, and 13% of people aged 30 to 39 were also affected.
“You might think they’re just old people, but they’re not,” McCully said.
“Fourteen percent of 40-49 year olds were struggling.
“It’s on every level.”
Hubbard said it was becoming increasingly difficult to access human support from government agencies, but people’s needs for face-to-face service and rapid telephone support were “more real than ever”.
“There are examples overseas where governments are doing it well, like in New South Wales [Australia] and Canada, which our Minister of Public Services and Commissioner of Public Services should examine and learn from.
“These one-stop-shop models for public services ensure people can access everything they need from government in person, online or over the phone.”
Whanganui District Library Learning and Discovery Librarian Rachel Smith said she is running digital literacy classes for people over 65.
The library also offers a reservation service by a librarian, who can help people of all ages.
“When the [Covid-19] vaccine certificates came out, we helped a lot of people get them,” Smith said.
For many people, it also meant setting up an email address for the first time.
“We also quite frequently help people communicate online with government departments, fill out forms, etc.
“It could be things like applying for rentals or applying for jobs as well.”
Smith said his impression was that there had been growing interest in digital literacy courses.
“Despite what some people are saying about libraries going extinct, I don’t think we’ll do that while there are people who still need digital media.”
McCully said the top issues faced by customers included the inability to use checks and the inability to access physical agency and service documentation.
“Some people don’t want to receive direct debit payments from their account because they can’t be entirely certain of how their money flow is going.
“I know in Australia there is already talk of ending cash, a cashless society.
“I hope it doesn’t come here in a rush because it would be a bit too much for people.”
Now that the ball was rolling, things would get more and more digital, McCully said.
“What we need to do is encourage government organizations or telephone and electric companies to understand the issues and work with the community to resolve them.
“I hope they will step back and realize that there is a little void that we have to fill.”
Following debate on the subject in Parliament last Thursday, Hubbard said there was clear all-party support for the CAB.
“From the Greens to ACT, there was general agreement that there is a problem with accessibility to public services.”
It resonated with MPs because they encountered similar issues in their own election offices, Hubbard said.
The digital-first approach just “continued” without really thinking about who would be left behind and how to deal with it.
“The challenge now is how to translate support from politicians into real change in how public services work,” Hubbard said.
“We are working with some departments on issues and gaps.
“Inland Revenue has been very receptive to the issue we have raised around MyIR for example.”
Hubbard said a slight disappointment was the lack of interaction with Public Service Minister Chris Hipkins.
“Yes, digital is good, let’s make it efficient and easy to use, but there will always be people who cannot or do not want to access digital services.
“We have to look at how services are accessible to everyone.”
The Citizens Advice Bureau Whanganui can be contacted on 06 343 9533.
The Whanganui District Library can be contacted on 06 349 1000 and SeniorNet, an organization which helps older people learn about the latest internet technology, can be found on 06 345 9772.