Digital Exclusion in the Public Sector

eGovernment and Issues of Inequality

Úlfur Kári Sonjuson



Global ICT (Information communication technology) spending is at an all-time high and is exponentially rising (IDC, 2020). This is principally due to a large focus on digital transformation from both the public and the private sector. Digital transformation, or digitalization, describes transforming previously analogue processes into digital ones through any type of ICT. The purpose for digitalizing a process is usually future-proofing and improving efficiency, as digitalization can automize a lot of previously manual labour and makes for more efficient storage of data. ICTs have become more prevalent in the public sector recently, especially across the European welfare states – notably Denmark. These welfare states have intensified the implementation of digitalization technologies within governmental institutions with a goal of more flexible and cost-effective governmental welfare institutions (Schou & Pors, 2018). Digitalization of the public sector is often accompanied by the term eGovernment:

“eGovernment refers to efforts by public authorities to use information and communication technologies (ICTs) to improve public services and increase democratic participation. eGovernment aims to improve government efficiency through the reduced cost of electronic information management and communications, the reorganisation of government agencies and the reduction of administrative silos of information. Even more importantly, it can reduce administrative burdens on citizens and businesses by making their interactions with public authorities faster, more convenient, and less costly, thereby spurring competitiveness and economic growth” (Davies, 2015)

This definition of eGoverment is presented by an official body of the EU, the EPRS. The definition can be observed as technologically deterministic. It exclusively highlights the positive effects of eGoverment and emphasizes business minded qualities like efficiency, economic growth, and cost-efficiency. But this is not false on the surface – eGovernment does embody these processes (Davies, 2015). What might not be considered though are the potential shortcomings of a large-scale digitalization of the public sector – notably digital exclusion. 

What is digital exclusion?

Digital exclusion is a part of Digital Inequalities, a term coined by American sociologist Paul DiMaggio et al. (2004). DiMaggio presents digital inequalities as a multidimensional digital divide – access to the internet is only one dimension to participating in the digital world, while another like social support, digital skills, and self-perception are equally essential to be digitally included (DiMaggio et al., 2004). In an increasingly digitalized society, which the western world embodies today, it is increasingly difficult to opt out of using digital technologies. Therefore, the term digital exclusion is coined as well, implying digitalization may leave previous users worse off than before, perhaps distancing them from society itself – contributing to a modern social stratification (Schou & Pors, 2018).  

Case: Denmark and mandatory digital self service

The case this article references is the study “Digital by default? A qualitative study of exclusion in digitalised welfare”(Schou & Pors, 2018) which showcases how governmental digitalisation reforms in Denmark introduce new exclusionary mechanisms and that digitalised welfare sustain and enhance existing lines of social stratification by producing new forms of digital exclusion. The study is based on ethnographic observations and qualitative interviews in citizen service centres in Denmark. The choice of Denmark as the location is relevant to the paper, as Denmark is considered as the leading European country when it comes digitalization (United Nations, 2020). It is therefore interesting to reflect on the shortcomings of the digitalization in Denmark, should other countries see Denmark as a forerunner of digitalization and follow in its footsteps. 

Digitalisation embodies fundamental changes in public sector practices, especially through the core idea of enhancing efficiency. It is efficient through abolishing many bureaucratic processes and human contact out of previously analogue services which formerly took place at physical citizen service centres. In the case of Danish welfare services, most welfare services now take place through self-service solutions – replacing the work previously done at the physical citizen service centres. These self-service solutions require active participation from the user, as the user must take the initiative themself to engage in the welfare state to ensure the services which they need and are entitled to.  This resonates much with the paradigmatic shift of citizenship becoming more activity-based rather than right-based (Schou & Pors, 2018).

A major step in digital transformation in Denmark was implemented in 2011 when the Danish Government established the Agency for Digitalisation and expected every citizen to use the “mandatory digital self-service” by 2015 (The Danish Government, 2011, p 5). Since then, the citizen service centres in Denmark were more or less repurposed to teach and support citizens in use of digital self-service solutions. Their goal changed to focusing on changing the citizen – gearing them to become digital (Schou & Pors, 2018). Public servants working at the centres involved are quoted as saying “citizen services want citizens out of the ‘shop.’ They have to serve themselves” (Schou & Pors, 2018).  A successful encounter at the citizen service centre would be a visit where the citizen does not return. Prior to the digital reform of public services, most Danish citizens had to visit the citizen service centres to ensure their welfare. This change of purpose at the Danish citizen service centres is what makes them interesting to observe. It completely shifts the relevant social groups, and makes these service centres a prime arena to observe the groups who are troubled by digitalisation and unable to follow the new demands posed by the state.

Through their field work at the citizen service centres, Schou and Pors (2018) manage to characterize 3 groups of citizens who would visit the centres. The first group being self-reliant citizens who would rarely be seen at the service centres as they would usually figure it out themselves. They are referred to as being ‘signed up’. Second, is mainly elderly citizens who have gotten a dispensation from the state to formally opt out of digital services and use paper forms instead, as it was unreasonable to expect them to be able to use the digital services. Finally, the last group, those observed to be the main users of assistance in citizen service centres. This group is most interesting, as they usually were not in an age group which could be expected to be technically illiterate. The group was mostly of middle age but was mainly composed of already excluded or marginalised citizens (Schou & Pors, 2018).

“Indeed, across our interviews and observations, homeless, addicts, poor immigrants, unemployed, and otherwise disadvantaged citizens, such as, for example, dyslexics, were articulated as and observed to be the main users of assistance in citizen service centres.” (Schou & Pors, 2018, p. 472)

This highlights a worrying shortcoming of digitalization. Who do we lose in this process of this digital transformation and what happens to them? All signs do point to that digitalization does indeed contribute to some kind social stratification – the process favours those who are signed up while putting those who are seemingly already at a disadvantage in life, on an even sharper edge. Users belonging to the third group are usually citizens who are highly in need of their welfare services, seemingly making it even harder for the benefits to reach those who would need them most. (Schou & Pors, 2018).

The field work also observes that an inability to use the official welfare systems in the intended way often affected citizens in very emotional ways, provoking insecurity and possibly furthering their hesitant attitude to digitalisation, often making them feel like second-class citizens (Schou & Pors, 2018).  Aside from psychological effects the experiences of digital exclusion in Denmark can also have direct impacts on citizens. All communication which is received through “Digital Post” is legally binding, and not responding to certain correspondences can prompt legal action and a further risk to losing welfare benefits. Therefore, a proportion of citizens may be reached slip through the net and are not reached out to. The act of activity-based citizenship makes it so that the citizen does not receive much guidance in their social and economic situation, as they are expected to ensure it themselves (Schou & Pors, 2018). 

Concluding remarks

With Denmark only becoming more of a digitalised nation (Statistics Denmark, 2020), what is the future for those who are digitally excluded? There is no evidence suggesting these marginalised groups citizens going anywhere, and if anything, the continued exclusion of them might just foster these groups – distancing them even more from society. As aforementioned, many of these citizens were poor immigrants, addicts, homeless, unemployed, etc. These are citizens who are most likely in need of the nation’s social security which is found in the welfare services.  This aggressive digitalisation is potentially a disaster in disguise for society if no changes are seen soon. With Denmark considerably in the lead of public digitalisation, there is no doubt that other countries are looking at Denmark’s progress and wondering how they can replicate it. Digitalisation has potential economic benefits for society, but at what cost? Should we really be seeing social stratification happening in the 21st century?

Another Norwegian study on a similar topic researches the effect of the digital transformation to screen to screen contact in public welfare. This does propose another potential issue with digital transformation – what does it mean when we replace face to face contact with screen to screen?(Hansen, et al. 2018) The study broadly concludes that the Norwegian digital system currently does not do this very effectively, and many encounters end up at the citizen service centres instead of being completed online. Another question that can be proposed, is what effect it brings when you start removing the points of human contact in welfare services? This would be especially interesting to study in the case of group 3 in Denmark, many are in very vulnerable situations (Schou & Pors, 2018), and they might just need human contact to help with their issues. 

Úlfur Kári Sonjuson is a student in the Bachelor’s Programme in Techno-Anthropology at Aalborg University Copenhagen. His interests are in the cross-field of human relations and digital media – specifically in digital transformation. With aspirations to further studies at postgraduate level.


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