Healing the digital divide using service inclusion practices

Project dates: 2020 - 2022

This research aimed to demonstrate how service inclusion practices can be used to heal the Digital Divide. The “digital divide” refers to societal-level inequalities of digital access, capabilities, and outcomes. To explore how the digital divide affects customers experiencing vulnerability, service interactions in essential service settings (health care, education, and social services) were empirically investigated and practices service system members might adopt to address vulnerability were identified. This research upframes the pillars of service inclusion framework to define human capabilities that result from service inclusion practices. This project was a joint project between ServCollab and the research team.

Why is this important?

Ensuring that all people have access to digital technology, digital capabilities and positive digital outcomes is fundamental to wellbeing for people globally.  The digital divide is uneven distribution of digital technology, capabilities and outcomes and results in hardship in a variety of forms ie educational, financial, physical, emotional and social. Digital inclusion seeks to address the exclusionary effects of the digital divide and digital service inclusion identifies the role that service organisations can play in healing the digital divide.

What did we do?

Prior academic literature tends to cast the digital divide as a chasm that might be bridged by improving access to technological solutions and devices. Such discussions often present people as disadvantaged or vulnerable due to a lack of access—a theoretical perspective that is based on entrenched notions of deficit thinking. We challenge this view and instead adopt a strengths-based perspective that prioritizes the capabilities a person can leverage, rather than focusing on the resources a person lacks.

We undertook a mixed-method approach by first analysing secondary data on the digital divide across two countries 9Australia and USA) and then conducted 33 interviews with essential service providers in health, social services and education.

What did we find out?

What is the nature of the digital divide in essential service delivery, and how has it affected vulnerability?

  1. The digital divide is associated with customer vulnerability, even in developed countries such as the United States and Australia. The digital divide does not result solely from varied access to computers and the Internet; it also encompasses asymmetries in skills, human capabilities, and tangible outcomes.
  2. Service adaptations that shift physical to digital delivery modes, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, have revealed, created, and exacerbated conditions of vulnerability associated with the digital divide for customers across health care, education, and social services sectors.
  3. Macroenvironmental factors, including public policy, legislation, natural forces, and hazards, create significantly more awareness of the effects of the digital divide
  4. Service organizations and employees struggle to continue providing existing services and create new offerings for new client segments. Service organizations have had to innovate their business models, alter their organizational culture, and shift their service orientation to facilitate digital inclusion. As a result, services have changed, and some of the changes appear likely to persist.

How do people in essential service organizations understand and address the digital divide through service inclusion practices?

Service providers adopt seven practices when preparing to serve their customers:

(1) leading the organization to meet a specific challenge

(2) understanding and responding to macroenvironmental forces

(3) obtaining and deploying necessary organizational resources

(4) managing human resources

(5) managing revenue, expenses, and funding

(6) expanding network partners

(7) creating organizational flexibility

Service providers adopt five practices when coproducing inclusive digital services

(1) navigating digital resources and infrastructure

(2) developing necessary digital skills

(3) encouraging digital adoption

(4) facilitating connection and interaction

(5) dealing with emergent challenges.

Four digital service inclusion strategies:

  • letting go of past rules and perspectives
  • sharing control
  • going beyond the job scope
  • facilitating social connections

How do service inclusion practices enable human capabilities for digital inclusion?

These 12 digital service inclusion practices by service providers enable six customer capabilities for digital inclusion

(1) technological skills

(2) digital problem-solving skills

(3) career enhancing skills

(4) wellbeing management skills

(5) coping skills

(6) social interaction and networking skills.

For more information contact: ray.fisk@servcollab.org

Chief Investigators


Other Team Members

Andrew s. Gallen, Florida Atlantic University

Alison M. Joubert, University of Adelaide

Jenine Beekhuyzen, Tech Girls Movement Foundation

Lilliemay Cheung, University of Queensland