How to reform federal technology without deepening the digital divide
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If this week’s inaugural meeting of the American Technology Council is any indication, the Trump administration is poised to unleash the power of technology to revamp how the federal government serves and communicates with its citizens. While introducing tech reforms to improve citizen services is a worthy – and in many cases, sorely needed – effort, the Trump administration shouldn’t assume that all Americans are able to take advantage of it.

That’s because the digital divide is still alive and well in the U.S.

Analysis by the Pew Research Center shows that one-third of all American households don’t have Internet access at home. What’s more, 13 percent of all American adults do not use the Internet at all – a statistic that is even more profound among seniors (45 percent of whom do not own a computer) and minority households (between nearly half and 60 percent of which have no wired Internet at home).

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And while rural communities overwhelmingly voted for President Trump, many are unlikely to benefit from new federal technology reforms. Nearly 40 percent of citizens in rural areas – 23 million people – lack access to broadband Internet service, according to the Federal Communications Commission’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report.

 

The American Technology Council’s stated declaration to rid the government of primeval floppy disks and update the Department of Veterans Affairs’ systems surely holds great promise, but the administration also needs to maintain – and even reinstate – some of the traditional points of access that are being removed or threatened.

In some areas, the federal government has already moved too swiftly to communicate and do business electronically – leaving citizens, especially seniors, those in rural and low-income areas and those without tech savvy, scrambling for important information.

Just consider the following:

  • Tax forms are not easily accessible. The IRS has eliminated the mailing of tax forms and instructions, even to the more than 30 million tax filers who filed on paper in the previous tax year. Non-computer-savvy seniors who prefer not to engage expensive tax preparation services now scramble to obtain tax forms and instructions from libraries and post offices, where they are often missing. To aid compliance, the IRS should send tax forms to those citizens who still file by mail.

  • Social Security earnings statements only available online. All wage earners have lost access to their annual Social Security Earnings Statement –probably the most important financial planning tool most Americans will ever see. It allows taxpayers to confirm the accuracy of their earnings history and obtain fair estimates of Social Security benefits. To access the online version, citizens must visit what they hope is the correct website and load sensitive personal data. To date, only 18 percent of wage earners have accessed Social Security earnings statements online.
  • The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) wants to allow mutual fund issuers to stop mailing investment information. Even though investors can already choose to receive shareholder reports online, this proposal would force the transition of electronic delivery faster than the investing public wants it.

The reality is that the federal government has bungled a lot of tech reforms, whether by relying on outdated technology or by marginalizing Americans who need or want non-digital access to their government. As the Trump administration moves to create a more tech-friendly government, let’s hope they also take a more unified approach and consider the needs of all Americans.

Uncle Sam can – and should – lead a digital revolution without leaving anyone behind.

John Runyan is the executive director of the Coalition for Paper Options, an alliance of consumer organizations, labor unions and print communications industry organizations and employees dedicated to preserving access to important paper-based information and services for Americans who prefer them or depend on them.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.