By Helmi Soininvaara and Pinja Lehtonen

What is social inclusion and why is it important in technology-based public services?

Female client consulting with a agent in the office

The UN Economic and Social Affairs Department defines social inclusion as the ‘process of improving the terms of participation in society, particularly for people who are disadvantaged’. This is done by ‘enhancing opportunities, access to resources, voice and respect for rights’. 

Inclusion is a key aspect in public services, since they are intended to benefit all segments of populations. Inclusion is thus crucial for the legitimacy of all public services. It is also something that merits extra attention in the case of technologically enabled services, since their use requires digital skills, potentially placing certain groups in disadvantaged positions. Discussing access and equality with the help of concrete examples often helps develop services that benefit all users more comprehensively. 

As TOKEN researches and develops public services enabled by Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLTs; e.g. blockchain), the project wanted to draw attention to questions of inclusion such as access and accessibility, data use, privacy and stakeholder participation. Another key theme was communication: how should public sector DLT-based technologies be communicated to their users, meaning both civil servants and citizens. These themes were the focus of TOKEN’s fifth and final Policy Observatory workshop. 

The workshop covered practical questions on inclusion

The Policy Observatory was organized by the think tank Demos Helsinki as an online workshop on November 7th, 2022. To enable genuine discussion and an engaging atmosphere, this Observatory was a closed event for some 15 carefully chosen participants. They were experts using DLTs in public services, e.g. city and government officials. 

In this workshop, the participants first worked in three small groups each discussing three themes. First, the groups reflected on their experiences on social inclusion issues related to their work with public sector DLTs, which included e.g. questions of catering to different user groups and (not) collecting personal data from users. Second, groups discussed questions of skills and training. This implies e.g. what kind of information the end users and civil servants need about the technological services. Concluding the group work, participants thought about best practices that would enable social inclusion in the commissioning, development and deployment of DLTs. Thereafter, the groups presented their insights to each other and discussed those further. 

Initial learnings from the workshop 

Participants highlighted the importance of communicating the benefits of the service to its users. While citizens need to understand something about the technological solution in order to trust it, the majority of service users are not interested in knowing about the technical architecture in detail. 

Groups also discussed the usefulness of small-scale use cases as a testing ground for DLT solutions. In addition to providing important information for the further development of service features, these pilot experiments may increase the public’s trust in the technology. DLT services could also benefit from tools and processes developed in other digital services.

The digital divide was seen as a crucial hindrance in the use of DLTs in public services: some user groups lack capabilities to access services and may also be distrustful of technological solutions altogether. Transparency, stakeholder participation and sufficient digital training for citizens are parts of the solution, but more attention should be paid to developing complementary methods to ensure the inclusion of all potential service users. 

The GDPR legislation was experienced by some participants as difficult to comply with, and a suggestion was made to create model pathways that new technological initiatives could follow more easily. 

These and other insights gained at the 5th Policy Observatory workshop will be used to formulate recommendations aimed for professionals who are commissioning, developing and deploying DLT in public sector projects. They will be published in the upcoming 5th TOKEN Briefing Paper – stay tuned!