Picture: 123RF/ALPHASPIRIT
Picture: 123RF/ALPHASPIRIT

Only about half of citizens globally think governments and public services used digital technology effectively in response to the pandemic, and only a third of people trust local and national governments to respond well in a crisis.

These are among the findings in a global study by EY and international market researcher Ipsos Mori.

The study, which focused on how governments use technology to better meet citizens’ needs, shows there is a broad appetite among citizens for more digitally enabled public services — as long as they have a say in how they are delivered. 

The challenge to the government is to better harness data and technology to deliver services through digital platforms and infrastructure that place citizens at the centre of service delivery, versus a service delivery design revolving around the government. 

Globally, almost a third of citizens (32%) rank more use of digital technologies in the provision of public services as one of the top three priorities for governments.  One of the most striking consequences of the pandemic has been the increasing reliance on technology to improve our daily lives. About 64% of people believe the pandemic will increase the use of technology, with some of the developing countries showing the most widespread expectation of increased technology use. 

But while governments have accelerated the shift towards the digitalisation of public services, they continue to lag behind services provided by the private sector such as online shopping and banking in terms of expected improvements in service provision — though health-care services are viewed more positively. 

Asked how effective people thought their governments and public sector had been in using digital technology to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, globally only about half of citizens (53%) thought it had been done effectively. 

Perceptions differ markedly across the 12 countries surveyed that included SA. A total 88% of citizens in Malaysia and 80% of those in India said their governments had leveraged technology effectively, compared with just 36% in France and 29% in Japan. In SA, 56% of respondents said the government used digital technology well for contact tracing and reporting on daily infections rates. 

Private data

Governments clearly still have some way to go on their digital journey to meet the expectations of the people they serve.

The survey further shows that there is some support for using private data when people are clear that it offers personal or societal benefits. This is particularly the case regarding public health. Using personal data to help track and prevent disease is, for example, supported by 52% of citizens globally while 48% of people support using personal data priorities for local health services. The challenge remains for governments to address the trust deficit with citizens. 

Though global satisfaction with public services is generally good (especially for health, education and local services), overall trust in national and local governments is much lower (33% and 36% respectively). The global figures mask significant differences across countries. 

Trust in national governments ranges from 63% in India and 46% in Australia to 29% in France, 27% in the UK and 26% in the US. In SA and Mexico the number is just 19%. 

As more people and devices are connected, the volume and variety of data created and the speed at which it is gathered will increase. This is creating public anxiety about personal privacy and lack of control over how peoples data is used. 

More than four in 10 citizens are against the sharing of data, both within the government and with private sector companies. Almost three-quarters (72%) are opposed to the government selling their personal data to a private sector company, even if it is to raise money that can fund better public services or tax cuts.

Most people — about 72% of citizens surveyed globally — believe it makes life better, and that it will be needed to help solve complex future problems. But there are concerns about its broader impact. These include widening social inequality. Often, the most disadvantaged citizens are unable to afford access to new technology and lack the digital literacy skills to use it. 

Globally, almost a third of citizens (32%) say the benefits of technology will not be equally spread across different groups in society. And 34% think technology gives more power to those who are already rich and powerful. Improving access to, and supporting people to become more comfortable and competent with, technology will be critical. 

The survey revealed widespread support among citizens for government skills programmes aimed at helping people use and understand new technologies: 61% of survey respondents said they would be likely to use government training schemes to improve their digital skills. 

• Hlophe is partner and Africa region government & public sector leader at EY.

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