How can clever governments choose to close the digital divide?

Stephen McKernan QSO

EY Oceania Advisory Partner and Government & Public Sector Lead

Health system design specialist. Former public servant. Wannabe chef. Guitar player.

Julie Westover

EY Oceania Consulting Partner

Experienced Information Technology Leader.

Arnauld Bertrand

EY Global Government & Public Sector Advisory Leader

Working with governments to build stronger administrations for impactful public policies. Passionate about leading teams to guide public performance, innovation and service.

10 minute read 21 Sep 2021

Without a deeper understanding of peoples’ relationships with, and expectations of technology, unthinking governments risk disconnecting as many citizens as they connect.

In brief
  • Citizens have a broad appetite for more digitally-enabled public services and many want to have more of a say in how and where these services are delivered.
  • But, according to EY research, a significant number of citizens lack the skills or means to access digital services, including people in rural and regional areas.
  • The challenge for government is to harness data and technology to take a more personal approach to service delivery. Beyond being more efficient and effective, it’s about government that is responsive, insightful and enabling for all of us.

The COVID pandemic has profoundly increased our expectations of digital service delivery. From online shopping and virtual schooling to remote and hybrid working, citizens now want their services delivered at the same standard as they expected in person. While many private businesses have transformed to meet these expectations, the global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic means that governments are being held to the same service expectation standards as private businesses, more than ever.

Government agencies had already started to move online. The question now becomes: how do governments continue to build from this unexpected acceleration and deliver against expectations that have been newly reset? A key part of the answer lies in understanding the new business models for customer engagement that support this transformation.

New business models for government service delivery require a holistic yet differentiated understanding of exactly who those services are going to, those peoples’ service needs and their expectations of how services are delivered. Governments can’t rely on a generic approach. They need to tailor their delivery for a differentiated experience to meet citizen expectations while optimising outcomes and efficacy, especially if those services are being digitised. To do this effectively, governments need to develop citizen-centric business models.

EY’s major new research program — Connected Citizens — describes how people’s lives have changed, and will continue to change, by recognising the different digital needs and expectations of different citizen groups, or personas. How do different citizen groups view their lives? What do they think of the services they receive from government? Are they ready for government to use more data and technology in public service delivery? How do they want to receive their services and interact with Government? How do socio-economic circumstances, age or education affect their responses?

By exploring what people value, what concerns them most and how they feel about the technological advances that are shaping our lives, governments can embrace the opportunity to better serve and engage with citizens.

  • About the research

    Ipsos MORI conducted online interviews with 13,100 participants of working age across 13 countries globally between July and September 2020. Quotas were set by age, gender, region and working status to achieve a representative sample in each country. Data were weighted by age, gender, region, work status and education. Ipsos MORI created a segmentation model based on the data, creating seven segments. EY then assigned each segment an identity or ‘persona’. Each persona reflects several dimensions including demographic profile, personal values, life satisfaction and priorities, attitudes toward technology and innovation, engagement with government and public services, and future outlook.

Why Governments need to personalise their digital services

One of the most striking consequences of the pandemic has been our increasing reliance on everyday technology, from online shopping to virtual workplaces. This momentum provides the impetus to sustain the trajectory of digital transformation, where we now see technology as instrumental in improving many aspects of our lives.

But while governments around the world have accelerated the digitisation of many public services, the citizen experience continues to lag services provided by the private sector, such as online shopping and banking, in terms of expected improvements and personalisation.

The good news is that New Zealanders are increasingly receptive to the use of technology by government and have taken notice, with almost two-thirds believing the government and public service’s use of technology to respond to the pandemic was effective.

Citizens are also becoming more discerning and looking for sustainable digital transformation of government services rather than short-term fixes through shiny new apps that are not integrated or that deliver limited value. The use of QR codes, and payment via your phone or watch has become commonplace during COVID-19. These accessible approaches need to be expanded and move to the next level of sophistication for other servicing.

Technology is expected to improve how people manage many different aspects of their lives... but public services lag behind other sectors

Question: Looking ahead to the future, to what extent, if at all, do you think technology will change the way you do each of the following? Is that for better or for worse?

As well as exploring in detail how citizens use and engage with technology (see our comprehensive report on the survey), the data has helped uncover seven different citizen personas that governments should understand in in order to deliver effective digital services in the future: Diligent Strivers, Capable Achievers, Privacy Defenders, Aspirational Technophiles, Tech Sceptics, Struggling Providers and Passive Outsiders.

These personas bring to life a citizen-centric approach and provide a useful springboard to help design and deliver on the ambition of a digital government within the broader context of a digital economy.

  • Seven Connected Citizens personas

    Diligent Strivers are young proactive self-improvers keen to get on in life. They expect seamless digital government services to help them achieve their aims and are comfortable sharing their data with governments. They believe strongly in equal opportunities for all. 

    Capable Achievers are independent, successful and satisfied with their lives. They are pragmatic technophiles who embrace digital innovation. They trust governments to use their data appropriately, but worry about it getting into the wrong hands.

    Privacy Defenders tend to be older, independent and comfortably off. They value technology and the benefits it gives them, but are extremely cautious when it comes to sharing their personal data with government or private companies. 

    Aspirational Technophiles are younger well-educated city-dwellers. Motivated by success and new opportunities, they incorporate technology and data into every facet of their lives. They are excited by the potential for new digital innovations to empower people and improve society. 

    Tech Sceptics are older, on lower incomes and relatively dissatisfied with their lives. They are distrustful of government and sceptical about the benefits of technology. They tend to be opposed to data sharing, even for a clear purpose. 

    Struggling Providers are younger and tend to be in low-paid, less secure work. They are above-average users of welfare services. They are ambivalent toward technology, lacking the access and skills for it to make a big difference to their lives. 

    Passive Outsiders have lower levels of income and education. They are detached from the connected world around them and generally reluctant to embrace change. They are relatively ambivalent on data sharing but tend to feel the risks outweigh the benefits.

Embracing the opportunity in different citizen groups

While the different personas share many characteristics, governments need to be aware of and respond to key differences between each of the personas. These personas will be informative in designing and transforming government service delivery models that balance experience, cost to serve and outcome effectiveness while ensuring equity is not compromised.

In New Zealand, the largest Connected Citizen group are the Capable Achievers, at 32% of the population, giving governments a clear opportunity to work with a cohort who actively embrace digital innovation. Three groups hover sit between 14 – 20%, while Passive Outsiders and Struggling Providers are lower at 6% and 2% respectively.

These basic insights tell us that it’s not just the use of data that is important. Instead, it is the responsible use of citizen data that government needs to address. And through responsible data use, governments can start to establish trust.

At the same time as citizens start giving more permission to hold and use their data for increased service delivery, consent-based systems and principles will need to be standardised and streamlined. Citizens expect that their information is enabling the intended outcomes and any unintended consequences are managed and mitigated.

A striking difference between the personas is their attitudes to technology and digital service delivery, with less than half of the Passive Outsiders and Struggling Providers group saying they feel comfortable using new technology on their own. While they each represent a small group, taken together these two groups make up almost one tenth of the New Zealand population, suggesting a targeted program to lift New Zealand’s digital capability will be needed.

Similarly, people have strongly diverging attitudes toward sharing data. While some groups are comfortable sharing data to access a service or perform a transaction online, others voice real concerns about the risks involved. The need for governments to maintain citizen trust with data consent privacy issues will be a key success factor for the continued growth of the digitally connected citizen in New Zealand.

The key point emerging from the survey is that New Zealand citizens have a higher willingness and capability to use digital services. However, we are on the lower end of trusting our government with our data. This means that government needs to overcome the hurdle of trust if it is to be successful in its digital transformation.

Some of our citizen segments lack the confidence to use new technology

Question: To what extent do you agree or disagree with this statement about technology? - I feel confident using new technology on my own

Why does this matter? Almost one-third of global citizens rank more use of digital technologies in public service provision as one of the top three priorities for governments to improve service quality. So as governments move towards “digital by design” and “digital by default” approaches to service delivery, these personas can help governments ensure that digital services and data policies are properly designed across these different cohorts.

For example, what happens to the Struggling Providers — who may need the most support — if digital channels are the only way to access some services? Could they miss out on services and opportunities, and see the structural inequality they suffer from get worse?

Greater personalisation will help improve public policy design, deliver more efficient and effective public services, and strengthen the relationship between government and citizens. The citizen-centric approach will also shift the role of government beyond just being a regulator and service provider. Government will now need to become a participant in and facilitator of the digital economy.

In addition, as government services are extended and transformed, organisations rolling out these changes must establish and maintain trust with citizens, particularly with respect to data privacy and consent. An example of government leaning into these innovations is the Consumer Data Right (CDR) program, on 5 July 2021, the Government decided to implement a new legislative framework for a consumer data right. This will allow consumers to securely share data that is held about them with trusted third parties, using standardised data formats and interfaces. While the focus has been on financial services in the first instance, the CDR program is in line to be rolled out to other sectors such as energy and utilities.

Three priorities for governments

New Zealand policymakers should focus on three priorities as they strive to meet the multi-dimensional needs of citizens, engage them as co-producers of public value and deliver more effective and efficient digital services.

1) Trusted inclusive digital service delivery

Inclusive digital service delivery makes sense if it is framed around a new model of customer engagement. If government is going to solve the high capability versus low trust problem in New Zealand, inclusive and trustworthy systems will also need to be implemented and enabled.

Governments need to embark on a digital transformation program that focuses not just on how services are delivered, but also on what services are delivered. What’s required is a reshaping of public services enabled by technology, designed from the citizen’s perspective and on par or better than private sector services. This is the way to create public services that are differentiated yet inclusive, leaving no group behind.

A priority will be investment in high-speed digital infrastructure, including broadband and 5G networks, to provide connectivity in all parts of the country. With our nation lagging the digital infrastructure of many other developed countries, this is one of the critical challenges New Zealand policymakers need to urgently address. Governments can also help provide devices (like laptops and tablets) to get people online and run programs to improve people’s digital literacy so they have the skills and confidence to interact with digital services.

But governments will also need to ensure that those who are not digitally connected have alternative ways of accessing services. The requirement for no citizen to be disenfranchised is a major consideration for all public services.

Citizens already confident with technology have heightened expectations for service delivery, in terms of quality, speed, convenience and value for money. Governments will need to work to meet the expectations of these citizens, applying private sector standards. For example, now that the CDR has impacted expectations of how services are delivered to consumers, the New Zealand Government will also need to implement CDR for ‘Government-to-Citizen’ services.

Examples of digital services:

  • Transparent data privacy, security and consent measures to establish and maintain trust in service delivery.
  • Unique digital credentials that allow citizens to gain easier access to a range of services through multiple digital channels.
  • Increasing the use of biometric data to facilitate more effective movement and access to services supported by trusted identity validation and verification of people. 
  • Smart portals and mobile apps that provide one-stop access to multiple government services, as well as pushing timely messages and updates. Integrating these across levels of government should be the ultimate goal. 
  • ”Tell us once” services so people don’t have to re-fill their personal data online for different government transactions, so that government operates as one intelligent, integrated system designed around the citizen (and businesses).
  • Integrated digital platforms that enable data sharing across different government systems, creating a complete view of the citizen and organise services around people’s needs and life events.
  • Smarter infrastructure and buildings that are IoT (Internet of Things) enabled providing intelligent cities to citizens. 
  • Full, digital end-to-end fulfilment of service requests that enable speedier delivery.
  • Conversational platforms, with AI-powered chat bots, to interact with citizens, rapidly resolve queries and complete transactions.
  • A true omnichannel experience, allowing people to access services on a variety of platforms using a range of devices that is AI enabled where possible
  • Use of digital and emerging technologist to manage peak customer interaction volumes and delayed response times onset by disasters or emergency situations, enabling staff to focus on engaging with citizens that have unique or specialised circumstances.

Design thinking, customer experience labs and data analytics will help governments design their services to make each touchpoint better, faster and more efficient. The eventual goal is proactive and even predictive service delivery embedded in natural systems, where possible, reducing the administrative and compliance burden. This will ultimately free up resources to focus on those that need it most – the vulnerable in our society.

2) Responsible use and sharing of data and information

We’re producing and storing more data than ever before and now have the tools to analyse them for the public good. And while most people believe data analysis and technology will be needed to help solve increasingly complex future problems, they are concerned about widening social inequality, loss of human interaction and the potential encroachment on personal privacy and digital security.

With the evolvement of technology and reliance on the digital world during pandemic, there is a significant shift observed in the data usage when compared from previous years. As per NZ’s “Annual Telecommunications Monitoring Report” produced by Commerce Commission NZ’s on 16th March 2021, there has been an increase of mobile data consumption by 22% (3.3 Gb) and Broadband consumption by 37% (284 Gb).

The increase in production and storage of more data brings the risks and rewards at the same time.

While the rewards are enjoying digitalization, e-commerce, e-banking, interconnecting with the world from home, there are risks involved with the increasing data theft and cyber incidents. Further, based on the outcomes of the EY Global Information Security Survey (GISS) Report more than half of Oceania’s cybersecurity leaders (52%) say they have never felt as concerned as they do now about their ability to manage the cyber threat.

Usage of internet is not uniform when it comes down to age, gender, locations, ethnicity. This also raises the concern that user experience and wellbeing is not the same. As per the reports presented by Commerce Commission, 36.54% of population over 75 years old do not have access to the internet or are reluctant to access due to lack of skills.

Age and access to the internet

Age Internet No Internet Unknown Total
<26 99.17% 0.18% 0.65% 425
26-45 96.33% 3.67% 0.00% 1,053
46-65 92.33% 7.06% 0.61% 1,146
66-75 85.68% 13.88% 0.44% 487
>75 60.34% 36.54% 3.12% 334
Total 90.36% 9.00% 0.64% 3,445

Inequality in internet usage across the age groups is by nature, however it is the role of the Government to ensure that data usage and access to internet is secure for all. This is in public’s interest to know how secure their information is, where it’s been shared and how it is protected from being exploited. 

There is an opportunity for the Government to develop the one account model which would help protect users’ information with the highest standards of digital security and user experience. Moreover, this opportunity should be explored to investigate a potential solution for the non-tech users (old age etc) servicing the same level of user experience by securing their data using the one account and accessing most common applications (banks, IRD, Govt. resources) through secure Govt. portal. 

This integration would raise a need to prioritise and develop more alliance under NZ’s Approved Information Sharing Agreements (AISAs) under privacy act 2020. Not only this will see integrations between Govt departments but would extend to private sectors giving seamless experience to users. 

Currently Government agencies sharing data may not necessarily fall under the same security architecture and governance, and therefore leaves a gap in the system to protect the information. It would be Government’s responsibility to also prioritize and develop the governance model for storing, moving, and using the personal information between Govt-to-Govt and Govt-to-Private agencies. 

As more organisations embrace these good practices in ethical design and governance, governments will be better equipped to mitigate risks, safeguard against harmful outcomes and build the trust that is needed to use data to deliver better public policy outcomes. 

3) How government services moving digital will affect Māori 

As government services move towards digital by design, government agencies must ensure Māori are not left behind.

It is important to understand the barriers that Māori communities face with technology, as one of the most at-risk communities of being digitally excluded. The government’s Digital Inclusion Blueprint states that there are four interdependent elements which are all needed to be digitally included - access, motivation, skill and trust. The risk of a digital divide for Māori has triggered government agencies to further investigate Māori digital inclusiveness and develop solutions to address any shortcomings.

According to a Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) report on digital inclusiveness, Māori communities say that unaffordable access is the primary barrier to digital inclusion. A practical solution that has been implemented by two government agencies is through the use of Sponsored Data initiatives. The Ministry of Health (MOH) and the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) have both partnered with mobile network providers (Vodafone, Spark and 2Degrees) to enable free access – no mobile data required – to important online government information and services.
Accessibility and connectivity have also been highlighted as key improvement areas to enable Māori digital inclusion. A multi-agency initiative designed to address this is the rollout of the Marae Digital Connectivity programme. Marae are the cornerstone of Te Āo Māori (Māori society), but many are located in rural areas and/or without access to sufficient internet. This programme, led by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and Crown Infrastructure Partnership, has a target to provide 300 marae with access to broadband internet.

Equally as important as improving digital access for marae, is providing the people of marae with the skills to engage with the digital world. The Marae Digital Connectivity Skills initiative works in parallel with the Marae Digital Connectivity programme and provides in-depth training workshops on how to use the broadband and hardware packages they have received.

As government agencies further develop initiatives to narrow the digital divide and encourage Māori inclusiveness, it is important that Māori are not just consulted but are actually empowered to shape the initiatives that affect them. A shift towards a partnership approach where government and Māori co-design solutions to ensure moving government services to digital will benefit all. 

Why governments need to know their Connected Citizens

Governments around the world aspire to have strong and robust digital economies. While the private sector may have set the bar for digital transformation and consumer expectations, governments are now starting to provide leadership and accelerate their programs and implementations. 

Governments are also leaning in to address their role. Are they just the legislator and regulator, expecting others to be responsible for this digital transformation? Or are they facilitators of and participants in a digital economy? The pendulum is swinging towards this latter role, with the pandemic accelerating this shift. 

Governments also need to provide innovation and technology leadership so the ecosystem better serves Connected Citizens whose aspirations to be served on their own terms grow with each generation.

Advances in data and technology afford governments a unique opportunity to better serve their citizens. But, as with any transformative opportunity, there is an inherent risk: that an ambition to digitise and transform as much and as quickly as possible sometimes results in a one-size-fits all approach that actually fits only a few, leaving many further disconnected from government, physically and attitudinally. 

Governments must grasp this moment to transform and lead by showing ambition and implementing a coherent Digital Transformation program for creating a digital economy. Studying the seven Connected Citizens personas will help governments plan digital service delivery mechanisms that cater for each of their different needs. 

In doing so, governments can become more effective and more efficient, while addressing digital exclusion to help reduce social inequality. At the same time, they will help build a more equitable and better working world for every citizen.


Citizens increasingly demand government services that are as accessible and personalised as those that they enjoy from private sector providers. They also want to be more engaged in how those services are designed and delivered. This creates an opportunity to strengthen the relationship between governments and the people they serve, growing trust to the levels needed for effective government.

But governments must also prevent groups that are challenged by the shift to digital from being left behind. Innovative policy design, accelerated digitisation, better use of data and participatory engagement with citizens will be important components of all governments’ responses to rising expectations and citizens’ confidence in data privacy and consent.

About this article

Stephen McKernan QSO

EY Oceania Advisory Partner and Government & Public Sector Lead

Health system design specialist. Former public servant. Wannabe chef. Guitar player.

Julie Westover

EY Oceania Consulting Partner

Experienced Information Technology Leader.

Arnauld Bertrand

EY Global Government & Public Sector Advisory Leader

Working with governments to build stronger administrations for impactful public policies. Passionate about leading teams to guide public performance, innovation and service.