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Digital Government Is Only Successful If It Works for All

Government is tasked with the hefty responsibility of doing the people’s business, but what happens when people can’t access services or online systems fail?

Packages are passed down a conveyor belt before receiving a shipping label at Amazon in Shakopee, Minn. (Anthony Souffle/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)
According to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, 126 million Americans had Amazon Prime memberships as of September 2020. That’s an increase of 8 million over the number of Prime members in March 2020, when the pandemic began to encourage much more time at home. Shopping, paying bills and otherwise conducting life online became the norm for most Americans in 2020. Most, but not all.

But what about the people that haven’t increased their online activity in the past year? What about those that are offline altogether? Big retailers can afford to focus their efforts on the connected majority. But government must serve everyone.

Among the lofty list of government’s responsibilities are things like ensuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense and promoting the general welfare. Adapting that last one to the present day, it means making sure unemployment benefits get delivered and that residents can access other elements of the social safety net.

In our feature on the unbanked, GT Associate Editor Zack Quaintance looks at another segment of the population that can be harder for government to interact with: those without traditional bank accounts. And while benefits cards can connect unbanked people with services they’re eligible for, what about those who need to conduct business with government?  

For much of the country, property taxes are a major source of revenue for local government — such a significant amount, in fact, that revenue agencies couldn’t afford to let the pandemic derail their collection efforts. How then could they continue to meet their basic obligations to citizens for things like filling potholes, staffing emergency services and picking up trash?

As was the case with so many services, efforts to digitize revenue collection ramped up to overdrive last year, with many existing plans fast-tracked. But making online payment options available doesn’t help taxpayers who prefer to pay cash.

Federal Reserve estimates from 2018 indicate that 22 percent of American households include unbanked or underbanked adults. And while many are from immigrant communities and fall into lower income categories, their reasons for avoiding traditional banking institutions can be as varied as the areas of the country they live in and their individual backgrounds. And while service counters at government buildings are set up to take cash payments under normal circumstances, COVID-19 limited the availability of these services.  

Our story frames several challenges governments face in reaching this segment of their constituency, and explores some creative partnerships that are helping close this access gap. It further looks at how this is increasingly viewed as an equity issue, as unbanked or underbanked people are likely reliant on high-fee services for check cashing or money orders for paying bills, exacerbating economic disadvantages they may already face.

Elsewhere in this issue, I hope you get a chance to read our detailed look at how states are working to adapt their unemployment systems, as well as local jurisdictions that haven’t let the pandemic get in the way of needed upgrades to their ERP systems. Finally, Associate Editor Ben Miller offers his Apology to COBOL, suggesting some of us might be too quick to dismiss and discount technology that could be called “legacy.” Even in the world of technology, just because something is old doesn’t mean it isn’t the right tool for the job.

Noelle Knell is the executive editor for e.Republic, responsible for setting the overall direction for e.Republic’s editorial platforms, including Government Technology, Governing, Industry Insider, Emergency Management and the Center for Digital Education. She has been with e.Republic since 2011, and has decades of writing, editing and leadership experience. A California native, Noelle has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history.