Shaping our Digital Future Part II: Improve Equity of Access

February 23, 2020

Children Looking at a Robot

10 ideas for things we need to do now to ensure that our digital future meets the challenges and possibilities that lie ahead. 

It’s not too late to fix the mistakes of the past and create a firm foundation for the years ahead, but our prosperity and well-being at every level of American society will depend on confronting these challenges and taking meaningful action.

Most of us have increasingly turned to online access when it comes to interacting with our government at all levels, whether we need to renew a license, pay a bill, or apply for a permit. The current global pandemic has only accelerated this trend, making online access not just convenient but essential. But for millions of people with disabilities or conditions that affect how they interact with technology, going online to access public services can be a frustrating ordeal, if it’s possible at all. It’s time to embrace the potential to create truly accessible, highly functional online services that will benefit all citizens and streamline the delivery of essential government functions.

Here’s what we need to do:

  1. Invest in voice-based AI agents to power government interactions. These tools remove barriers for those with disabilities and those with low bandwidth or limited access to technology while also streamlining services. Work toward this goal started several years ago, but it’s time to accelerate our progress.
  2. Establish Digital Equity of Access standards mandating the use of plain-language (middle school reading level) for government sites and databases. This will allow greater use by individuals with limited literacy or English proficiency as well as supporting machine translation and screen reader usage. The current federal plain language guidelines lay the groundwork for this transformation. Require the government at all levels to center the needs of their citizens and publish content that meets these readability standards..
  3. Give recently released incarcerated people digital training and access to public computers to help them prepare for and find employment or additional education. Invest 5 percent of each state’s incarceration budget to sponsor this training. Ensure that this population has the tools they need for a shot at success in today’s digital world when they return to society, including the skills required for work and the ability to take advantage of today’s flexible online education platforms. These efforts can build on the success of existing private-sector programs like The Last Mile.
  4. Whenever possible, give the public access to the data and digital underpinnings of government services to avoid bottlenecks and speed innovation. There are countless instances where we could break down bureaucracy through transparency without compromising security. Individuals and organizations outside the government should be able to dig into publicly-available data sets, create new integrations, and speed the flow of information that supports vital services, benefiting everyone.
  5. Encourage the Small Business Administration and state and local governments to offer a mobile app option for loan and working capital applications. Every other form of business now offers this type of flexibility for ease of access. These vital services should be no exception.
  6. Provide any government organization receiving federal funding with a digital technology accessibility expert on staff. In-house experts not only support better compliance but can help create a culture of accessibility for all.
  7. Make net neutrality the law to ensure that the wants or needs of certain segments of the population don’t drown out the wants or needs of others. Net neutrality requires internet service providers to treat all online content equally, without favoring or blocking specific sites, data, or applications. This is essential to protect equity of access by all communities, regardless of wealth or influence and already has the support of four out of five Americans.
  8. Improve accessibility in high-need communities by seeding the creation of secure digital service portals. In addition to funding better broadband access, funding the development of stand-alone digital service portals in high-need areas — impoverished, isolated, impacted by natural disasters, etc. — would help ensure that everyone can benefit from moving more services online.
  9. Wherever possible, phase out the use of inaccessible PDF-style documents for government records at all levels. The PDF format and other similar documents are not mobile responsive and are often impenetrable to screen readers or text magnification tools. Instead, vital government records including legislation, public disclosures, budgets and more could be published as web pages with structured data to allow better searchability, friendlier display, and full functionality on mobile devices.
  10. Give the government a legal “right to repair” any digital product or platform they buy. Right to repair means that a purchaser can fix the products they buy in the ways they see fit without having to go through the manufacturer. Proprietary software and integrations handcuff the government’s ability to adjust or innovate digital services. They should have access to the source code for the solutions they invest in to ensure that they can fix bugs and respond to evolving needs without relying on outside entities.