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Government’s ‘digital-first’ Approach To Delivering Public Services Failing Most Vulnerable

As the Government prioritises their online services, they are leaving some of the most vulnerable people in our communities behind. Citizens Advice Bureau has been a proud part of the community for more than 50 years, helping hundreds of thousands of people annually. In our work with clients, we have seen it getting increasingly hard for people to access a human face to our public services and we’re really worried by where things are headed.

Our over 2,000 volunteers, operating across the country, equip people with information, advice and support. Part of our role is to help people know the government services that might be able to help them to resolve their problems. But what we are seeing is public services rapidly retreating to digital-first, or digital-only service delivery, and leaving the most vulnerable unable to access the public services they need.

Whether it’s IRD forcing people to use MyIR if they want to access their entitlement to paid parental leave, or Tenancy Services making it extraordinarily difficult to access a paper form to apply to the Tenancy Tribunal, the drive to digital-first or digital-only services is actively harming vulnerable people. It is making it hard or impossible for them to access the services they are entitled to.

To be clear, we are not opposed to public services being available online. We recognise that for lots of people accessing those services online is fast and easy, and we support that. But while technology provides us with lots of benefits, a digital solution is not always the right one for every person or every situation. People are struggling with things like accessing information about their rights, getting financial help, standing up for their tenancy rights, accessing employment mediation, and even verifying their own identity. Sometimes you just want to be able to talk it through with someone, and better yet, to sit down together and navigate through the process.

Last year we looked deeper into the experiences of thousands of people who came to us for help and what barriers they were facing. This work showed that Māori and Pacific Peoples were clearly overrepresented amongst CAB clients experiencing digital exclusion, accounting for 20% and 14% of digitally excluded clients respectively.

We’re seeing people isolated, frustrated and under real stress, because – in that moment when they need support – digital services just don’t cut it. We need to make sure that if someone does need to talk to someone, they can, and that if they need a paper form, this is not seen as a system failure, but as providing services in a range of ways to support people’s needs.

With so much of the non-digital infrastructure that supports inclusion having already been dismantled, this is not about just turning back the clock. Instead we need to think creatively about how we can build a future that is inclusive of all.

We have presented a petition to Parliament asking the Government to take urgent action to ensure that public services remain accessible to all. This is about making sure that we don’t leave anyone behind in the rush to ‘digitally transform’ our public services. In my twelve years at CAB, this is the first time we have led a campaign to publicly petition Parliament. This reflects the level of concern we feel about this issue. This is because every day we are seeing the negative impact on some of Aotearoa’s most vulnerable people and communities, which is further entrenching disadvantage.

If this Government is truly concerned about community wellbeing, then one thing that they can and should do right now, is ensure that public services remain accessible to all.

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