Screenshot of Australian census website failing to connect

Though last Tuesday’s attempted census has attracted much opprobrium for the Australian Bureau of Statistics, to focus solely on the issues raised by the department’s bungling is to let a much more significant question go begging: why are so many crucial government services heading so far online?

Regardless of whether the census was thrown off kilter by Distributed Denial of Service attacks (maybe), capacity problems (likely) or a shark chewing on the undersea cable (almost definitely not), problems with the digital streamlining of crucial government services and initiatives like the census have been stacking up across departments for some time now, and the relentless logic underpinning this government-wide process needs unpicking.

The digitisation of government services, also known as e-government, has rapidly become a central part of how Western governments go about their business, the sort of thing so normalised that the UN keeps league tables to measure how different nations are going about it.

Yet, despite the upbeat management speak that resounds internationally around the concept (efficiency, dividends, service), scholar Alexandru Roman has noted that it’s hardly been a demand-driven development on the behalf of citizens clamouring to sit at their laptops to file their paperwork. Rather, it’s been a top-down process of driving efficiency savings through reducing labour costs for governments, and for every success, there’s a heap of initiatives that have been at best noble failures and at worst total blarney.

In a 2013 policy document, the to-be Abbott government proposed that by 2020 four out of five Australians would use internet platforms for all government services, a figure well up from the 38% who had used the internet in their last engagement with government services in 2012. In that paper, the Coalition cited a fall in Australia’s rankings in the international efficiency and digital government uptake under Labor as a spur to increase Australian competitiveness with other countries.

The report continued that to ensure this level of international parity, even though not all Australians have easy internet access or digital skills, the presumption in service provision “should be [that] the Internet is the default way of interacting”. That optimism, however, comes in stark opposition to the reality of online service usage for most Australians.

[It’s time to vote online]

The adoption of internet technology for the citizen-government how’d-you-do has never been just a matter of putting a service online, as the process of doing so transforms the relationship between the two parties. Since the 1980s, we’ve witnessed the transition from what Michael Lipsky described as “street-level” bureaucracy to a “screen-level” one, whereby the ethical, conversant and flexible decisions that arise from face-to-face conversations, based on understandings of someone’s life story and needs, have hardened into the algorithms, processes and scripts that dominate dealing with a department like Centrelink today — the kind of depersonalised personal service that gives the lie to the notion that a welfare recipient ever really exists in a client dynamic with the government, but more like a square peg in a round hole.

Looking at the digitisation of the DHS, we can see that it’s been excruciating for staff, the department and clients alike. The National Commission of Audit reported that Australians, collectively, spent 143 years on hold to Centrelink across the 2014-15 financial year. Some 22 million calls went unanswered out of 62 million made. That’s 4 million more unanswered calls than in the previous year. As one can merrily read in the reviews left in the Apple Store, the MyGov app has been savaged for being slow, glitchy and inaccessible, which is also the general feedback about the MyGov website.

In an account for The Sydney Morning Herald, a DHS employee bared the psychic cost of being at the front line of carrying out these systems, as clients routinely blame public servants for benefits being withheld. For staff, the burdens of demoralising pay freezes, client desperation and staff turnover partly engendered by results-based digitisation — moving people online — forms a public service that is, on the face of it, not exactly set to flourish. The fact that there will likely always remain a core constituency who, by reason of language, age or disability, simply can’t use online services make the achievement of goals like those in the Coalition’s policy paper hard to realise.

French theorist Francois Ewald described standardisation as a process whereby people are turned into units made legible by systems of administration; what falls by the wayside are the ways in which people tell their stories — in short, every other way of being understood. As users, whether we view an internet platform as a tool for expression (Facebook) or for more pragmatic needs (like, say, internet banking), we tend to always view it on our own terms, as something we use to attend to our needs.

Being confronted with platforms that stubbornly treat individuals as standardised pieces of data leads to bizarre and dismal confrontations, like those on the Centrelink Twitter feed, as those who seek help with their specific life crises receive nothing more than bog-standard answers to their questions. The one-size fits all interface doesn’t actually fit anyone.

This isn’t to throw the whole use of the internet under the bus; some Australian government online services have folded in nicely. For example, the Australian Tax Office offers simple, online interfaces for services like doing your taxes or rolling multiple super accounts into one (also thank you, AusPost tracking numbers!). Sending emails and online notifications also tend to be more efficient. But the thing about services like these is that they treat less complex needs. None of these involve dealing with the thornier and more complex questions of identity, of living day-to-day.

As Senator Doug Cameron noted regarding the Commission of Audit’s report, electronic delivery “creates its own demand for face-to-face and personal delivery, especially given the complexity of the work carried out by Human Services”. Rather than someone’s inability to go online being regarded as an inefficiency, one could more likely say that assisting those people is rather the point of a social democracy, and what makes Australia a country worth living in.

No one doubts that public servants are doing their best in difficult circumstances — the old “don’t shoot the messenger” wave of sympathy came on Twitter after the census — but what they’re being asked to stand behind needs fixing. In a post-WikiLeaks age, where online insecurities are burgeoning especially among older generations, old problems dealt with by the DHS haven’t changed, and the changing system doesn’t fix them. The idea of the digital tide being one that lifts all boats is rapidly being found out. If our systems aren’t working, maybe it’s because they haven’t been designed to fit the problems they were intended to solve.