In a message earlier this month, the IRS announced that, for the first time, it would not be making available through public libraries paper copies of instructional booklets for the most common IRS forms. This material, which is in extremely high demand at public libraries, must now be downloaded from the Internet or requested by mail.
Who is most affected by this change? No one knows, but we should.
E-government is quickly becoming the norm for all of the different ways that people interact with government: accessing information, applying for benefits, making and receiving payments, transacting business, and participating in policy debates. For many positive reasons, the IRS and all government agencies are moving to digital-only delivery of public information and services. However, the speed of the transition to e-government-only is in sharp contrast to the lack of information on its impact.
We need information on all of the different capabilities that add up to adequate access. Computers at home and the availability of broadband to the residence are only part of the picture. Effective access includes considerations of availability, affordability, adoption and literacy.
For example, most people who visit public libraries to use technology have Internet access at home, work or elsewhere. They use public library technology for other reasons: more users than computers at home; insufficient bandwidth; convenience; privacy, and the need for skilled help.
We need to understand what type of technology and literacy are required for e-government. Data show that cellphone and tablet use are increasingly widespread, but you cannot fill out the FAFSA form (financial aid for college), apply for unemployment insurance, or do tasks requiring complicated forms or large amounts of data on a mobile phone or tablet. The growing use of mobile apps does not yet address this issue. On the IRS mobile app you cannot e-file your taxes, but you can locate the nearest in-person free tax help.
We must understand who is affected as we move to greater reliance on e-government. Are we creating inequality in access to public information and services? Do availability, affordability, adoption and literacy differ depending on age, race, language, income and education level? Minneapolis’s Community Technology Survey: Overcoming the Digital Equity Gap concludes: “Overall, the data on user levels point to a digital equity gap along the lines of income, race, age and education.”
Is this true throughout Minnesota? Is access to public services and information fundamentally fair if online is the only option? We don’t know, but we can.
Some data about trends at a broad population level exist. But data do not exist that are sufficiently comprehensive, localized and timely to determine the impact of digital-only access to government. Minneapolis is the only jurisdiction of which we are aware in Minnesota that has relatively comprehensive data on digital inclusion. Its third annual survey was published in April 2014.
As we move to ubiquitous e-government, we must ensure that fair access by all is also ubiquitous. Not everyone will have ultra-high-speed broadband to the home and high-level digital literacy. Free public computing and support will be part of an e-government infrastructure that is fundamentally fair. We can determine whether free public computing is sufficiently robust throughout the state, but only with adequate information.
There is a group that may be able to find answers to these questions.
The Governor’s E-Government Advisory Council was established in 2013 for the purpose of improving online government information services to citizens and businesses. The duties of the Advisory Council are focused on developing services that can be supported by fees. But perhaps its scope of responsibility should be broadened to assess the adequacy of access to e-government throughout Minnesota.
As we change how we deliver public information, services, and civic participation, we must continue to deliver on the promise of fair access by all.
Kit Hadley is director of the St. Paul Public Library. This article was submitted on behalf of Marlene Moulton Janssen, director, Anoka County Library; Heidi Hoks, director, Carver County Library; Ken Behringer, director, Dakota County Library; Lois Langer Thompson, director, Hennepin County Library; Susan Nemitz, director, Ramsey County Library; Jacob Grussing, director, Scott County Library, and Pat Conley, director, Washington County Library.