• Opinion
  • August 4, 2019
  • 10 minutes
  • 0

The digital citizen is here — are governments ready?

Opinion: We can’t build digital government without upskilling citizens

This opinion article was written by José Clastornik, Executive Director at AGESIC, Uruguay’s e-government and information society agency. For more like this, see our digital government newsfeed.


The digital transformation processes within public administrations are important, but it is not the only arena we should look at, as we aim to digitise government. 

To deliver on digital transformation we also need to show the direct and concrete benefits for citizens, in a way that is based on inclusion and equity. 

Ensuring that everyone has access to information from government and the public digital services is critical for the growth and adoption of digital government, and should be a priority for the development of every country. 

But it is not only a matter of ensuring that people have internet access. 

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The development of basic digital literacy skills among citizens is also critical: without these basic skills, even the most ambitious achievements of digital government will fall short. 

These digital literacy skills can be defined as the competencies that allow citizens to critically reflect on the information they receive, understanding the social and economic impact of technology, while maintaining a respect for laws, knowledge and defending the rights of all people in a digital environment. 

More specific skills will also be needed for building the future. It is important to plan and prepare the next generations to be the ones who will deliver the next version of digital government. 

What is digital citizenship?

According to Unesco, “Digital citizenship is a set of skills that enables citizens to access, retrieve, understand, evaluate and use, to create as well as to share information and media in all formats, using several tools, in a critical, ethical and effective way to participate and engage in personal, professional and social activities”. 

In this definition, digital transformation is also a question of developing digital citizens, preparing people with skills that allow them to: 

  • Take advantage of the potential of new technology and feel confident in a digital environment. 
  • Be able to connect with government online and make use of digital services. 
  • Be aware of the rights associated with the digital environment, such as public information access and personal data protection rights. 
  • Manage the risks associated with the digital environment, deal with them through preventive behaviour and know where to go if problems do arise. 
  • Develop critical thinking, including the ability to discriminate between true and false content. 
  • Understand the logic of commercial interests and the implications behind the use of new technologies. 

In short, digital citizenship is related to the ability to use technology and digital media in a safe, responsible, critical and effective way, contributing to the exercise of a democratic and republican culture. 

Educating for the digital transformation

Research has shown that the way people behave in this digital world is strongly determined by their educational levels. 

The number of years spent in school influence more than other classic analysis variables, such as age and income. These differences suggest that the benefits of digital transformation will bring along new challenges. New services and digital rights demand more and more independent, self-sufficient, informed citizens, with a wide critical capacity. 

This means that digital citizenship is already a reality, but this citizenship is unevenly distributed. 

True digital transformation recognises digital citizenship as a key component needed for citizens to exercise their democratic rights in the 21st century

Among the main challenges and opportunities is the need to work on digital inequalities, and reduce disparities in both how people access online services, and the ways citizens participate. 

Recognising the complexity of this challenge, there are already several frameworks that give recommendations for governments in this field. 

Some of the most comprehensive road maps have been published in reports by Unesco, the European Commission, the European Council and DQ Institute, to name a few. Our challenge is to foster initiatives within those frameworks and deliver them in the context of our own digital agenda and ecosystem. 

Digital life in Uruguay 

For over a decade, Uruguay has gone through a period of social development in parallel with a rapid digital transformation. 

The country now has wide coverage of telecommunications infrastructure, and most homes are connected with optical fibre, with internet connection rates that are among the cheapest and fastest in the region. 

All children in the public education system receive their own computer, which is connected to the internet, and which they can share with their families. We also have a free digital ID system, which comes with an electronic signature chip.

These investments have already had a significant effect on digital inequality, reducing access gaps between higher and lower income groups as well as democratising services. The Specific Survey on Access and Usage of ICTs (EUTIC 2016) showed this impact clearly: 

  • In just 10 years (2006-2016) internet access in the poorest homes increased from 1% to 77% 
  • 86% of citizens now use the internet every day 
  • 70% of adult internet users have interacted online with the government 

All these achievements were contingent on the development of basic digital literacy skills among citizens: without them, these investments would not make a difference. 

Different national action plans are now in place for school children, their families and even senior citizens, within an explicit digital citizen framework. 

In addition, there is a new focus aimed at introducing digital content, coding, robotics and new technologies in the public school system, and in the curricula taught to children. 

Digital rights in the 21st century 

Developing digital citizenship requires efforts from the education system, the private sector and technical community, NGOs and the government. 

Governments must promote public policies that guarantee the right of all people — despite their background or income — to access the opportunities offered by the information and knowledge society, and raise awareness about these different initiatives. 

It is necessary to generate strategies, allowing people to develop skills on their own, and allowing them to use technology and digital media in a safe, critical and responsible way. In this context, we must educate people to develop these skills. 

Government should guarantee that citizens are no longer viewed as mere passive users but instead become qualified producers and consumers of information. Some of the most pressing challenges relate to: 

  • Defining strategies that are in line with the government’s digital agenda, identifying digital gaps and prioritising actions towards the most vulnerable groups in the population. 
  • Establishing common frameworks at a national level on digital citizenship that allows us to develop coordinated and aligned strategies with different actors, for example NGOs, tech companies and the private sector. 
  • Incorporating digital citizenship in formal and non-formal education through the training of teachers and in the continuous development of educational material. 
  • Measuring and continuously evaluating the behaviour of citizens in relation to digital government as a key factor for the feedback of the strategy. 

In short, true digital transformation recognises digital citizenship as a key component needed for citizens to exercise their democratic rights in the 21st century. 

Working on those challenges and advancing the agenda of digital citizenship will define not only the levels of adoption of digital government, but more important, our real levels of social inclusion and democracy.José Clastornik

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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