Having 99% of your government services available online is a wonderful thing because you can do virtually everything – with the current exception of getting married or divorced – no matter what time of day, no matter where you are in the world, as long as you are connected to the internet. However, time and location-independence are only two sub-sections of the area of accessibility. To create a genuinely equitable digital society that is accessible to everyone, including the elderly, there are many more aspects that must be tackled.
Why did the elderly miss out on digitalisation?
For this article, let’s focus on a tricky topic that is of fundamental importance but also widely misunderstood. Conventional wisdom has it that the elderly are inherently uninterested in digitalisation and resistant to new solutions. Proponents of this world view to the dozens of countries where digitalisation efforts have been made but failed to reach the elderly. You can’t argue with the symptoms here, but you can certainly question the root cause.
I would say that the elderly in many countries have been left behind through little fault of their own, and it’s primarily down to two points:
(1) Education: Estonia spent quite a bit of money, primarily in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when it started implementing its first online services but also up to this day to teach people how to use computers. Back then, there were circus tents filled with computers that would roam up and down the country, whereas now you can still register for fully state-funded computer courses at your local vocational school. This baseline ensured that people were at least aware of computers and what could be done with them.
(2) User-friendliness: This, I believe, is the straw that broke the backs of governments’ camels around the world. Yes, many countries might have implemented educational programmes but looking at the state of user-friendliness, there is still a lot of work to be done. This is primarily because many authorities sought to create a digital service that mirrors the paper document merely. So, you would have to fill in all the same things in your tax declaration as you would on paper, which begs the question: Why would anyone do it online, then? Governments around the world failed to provide a convincing answer to that question, and that’s why the elderly were not interested in making the switch.
Rethink your services!
Let me throw some facts at you: 96% of income tax declarations are submitted online in Estonia. It is, therefore, statistically impossible that the majority of the elderly do not use the system. Why does effectively everyone use this system? Because it takes on average three minutes to file your tax declaration online. You log into the system, check out all the calculations that have been made based on your income, donations to charities, etc. and then click “Submit.” Read more how E-governance saves both money and working hours from our previous article
In the 2019 Estonian parliamentary elections, more than 37,000 people aged 55-64, 21,000 people aged 65-74 and almost 13,000 people aged 75+ voted online. That’s almost exactly as many people as i-voters in the age groups 18-24 and 25-34 combined (71,510 vs. 71,972). How did we get the elderly to vote online? Because they often live in rural areas and have a greater incentive to use a system that does not require them to leave their homes.
Digital services are only meaningful if they are being used – and they will only be used if they provide a benefit to their users. By default, online services mean that you can use them whenever and wherever you want. But the more additional benefits you provide, the more likely you are to win over your population. So, don’t just think outside of the box. Dare to rethink the box itself.
Digital Transformation Adviser at the e-Estonia Briefing Centre