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The Digital Divide Lives On!

We recall being extremely excited decades ago at the prospect of state and local governments being able to conduct all sorts of transactions with the public. At the time, we were hearing about drivers’ license renewals, hunting & fishing licenses, and the like. Since then, the number of transactions that don’t need in-person visits to offices has grown steadily, and this has proven to be a blessing during the pandemic.

But even though the capacity to interact with a government with a mouse, a monitor and a computer, has been a beneficial trend in most ways, we’re concerned that it’s predicated on an invalid notion: The belief, which is simply not universally true is that practically everybody can easily, avail themselves of contacts with city hall and state houses that are increasingly designed to be conducted online.

Consider the days when vaccinations first became available to the general public. At least in our corner of America, we were all being encouraged to sign up for vaccines on our computers. The two of us could certainly accomplish this, and we did. But what about some of our friends and relatives, who are somewhat older than we are, and continue to find using a mouse as difficult an accomplishment as we might find if we were required to program our own computers? They were reliant on younger friends and relatives to lend a hand. But not everyone has a support group in this world, and so vaccines had to wait while COVID spread through the land.

Even for people who are computer savvy, other challenges presented themselves. Many Americans still live in areas where there is no easy access to broadband. We’ve written an article that will soon be published in the GFOA’s Government Finance Review about just that topic.

In other times, one solution for people who didn’t have their own access to broadband, would have been to use wi-fi connections available in libraries and in schools. But in the depths of the pandemic, libraries and schools were closed. And for people who didn’t have solid internet connections in their house. . . well, again, they labored under a potentially deadly disadvantage.

Now that there are plenty of vaccines available for Americans, most of these specific issues have receded into the past. But the reliance on computers to properly obtain the services paid for by tax dollars is still problematic for many.

Consider, for a moment, the multitude of websites put online by states and localities that aren’t compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Common interpretations of the Act maintain that public sector websites must be accessible to the blind, the deaf and the disabled. But as Ken Nakata, principle of Converge Accessibility, recently told us, for yet another piece in Government Finance Review, “Web accessibility is really broken in many places. Cities and states don’t think about it when they put up the site. And then, if a problem is identified, they often fix it, but then they add new content and they still don’t pay sufficient attention to accessibility.”

It used to be that the phrase “digital divide,” was used commonly and concerns about a society split into the information-haves and the information-have-nots was a specter on the horizon. Now that the number of have nots has shrunken, society seems somewhat less concerned. But just because a problem is somewhat less widespread than it once was, it doesn’t mean it’s gone away.


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