Inequality among Belgians regarding use of digital essential services
In 2020, the Covid-19 crisis increased, to a greater or lesser extent, the use of digital essential services. e-banking is the online service most used in Belgium (by 82% of people), followed by e-commerce (71%). Use of digital public services has developed little (68%) and e-health services remain little used (39%). Behind these figures lie important disparities, strongly linked to levels of income and education and Internet usage in general. These are the findings of a new study on digital essential services conducted on the initiative of the King Baudouin Foundation.
The digitisation of daily activities has boomed in recent years and has been further stimulated by the Covid-19 crisis. However, access to digital technologies and online services does not automatically lead to their effective use. Given its involvement in combatting digital exclusion, the King Baudouin Foundation commissioned researchers at UCLouvain, together with the VUB, to look at inequality linked to the use of digital essential services. A service is considered as ‘essential’ when its low level of use or non-use is likely to generate discrimination regarding access to social rights (e-administration and e-banking), healthcare (e-health) and commercial opportunities linked to the use and consumption of goods and services (e-commerce).
The study was based on new analyses of data from research on the use of ICT by households and individuals aged 16 to 74 (Eurostat – Statbel), during the period January to September 2020.
Development of digital equipment use
In 2020, 91% of Belgian households had an Internet connection at home. Internet access had developed significantly within households with low levels of income (81% in 2020 compared with 71% in 2019). However, having Internet access does not necessarily mean making full use of its potential: around one in five Internet users (17%) only used it in a limited fashion (for between one and six different purposes during the previous three months). This increases to 31% for those with a low level of income, 28% for the elderly and 26% for those with a lower level of education.
Inequality regarding the digitisation of essential services
At the time of the research, 7% of the Belgian population did not use Internet. Among those who did, the use of essential services that are digitized developed in 2020, although there were significant differences in function of the surfers’ profile and the extent of their Internet use. Regional differences persist, with greater use in Flanders, but the use of digital essential services was seen to be progressing in the Brussels-Capital Region and in Wallonia.
Use of e-banking had developed considerably in the Brussels-Capital Region (+12%). This was the most widely-used essential digital service in Belgium: in 2000, over eight out of ten surfers (82%) made online banking transactions. More use was being made of e-commerce (+11%) and this across all Regions. 71% of surfers made online purchases or sales. Use of e-banking and e-commerce fell among lower levels of income and education. Similarly, people who only made limited use of the Internet also in general made less use of online services.
The growth of e-administration, however, was lower (+4%) and this was true across the three Regions. In recent years, there has been very limited progress in the use of online public services in Belgium and it is even slowing down. Overall, 68% of Internet users conducted administrative activities online, but this varied enormously in function of educational level: 43% of those with low levels of education used such services, compared with 83% of those with higher levels of education. There is a reason for this: online use of such services demands adequate writing skills. Similarly, 71% of young people made little or no use of the Internet for administrative procedures. The level of educational achievement was once more decisive.
The use of e-health had also progressed little (+5%). As for the other digital essential services, inequalities persisted concerning access to e-health. 60% of Internet users did not use online health services. It should be noted that the period covered by the research did not cover digital services imposed by the Covid-19 crisis (such as tests, vaccination, the Covid Safe Ticket). It is likely that these will have led to an increase in the use of e-health and e-administration, but a lack of access and of skills among those who are remote from the digital world also risk hampering their use. The 2022 Barometer of Digital Inclusion will shed light on these aspects.
"For numerous people, the ‘administrative simplification’ through digitisation does not necessarily mean a simplification of procedures. And yet it is one of the most frequently-given arguments to justify the extent and speed of the dematerialisation of procedures” says Périne Brotcorne, author of the study. Only one in three Internet users with a low level of education (32%) or income (29%) thought that the use of the Internet enables administrative procedures to be simplified. This figure fell to 24% for those whose use of the Internet is limited.
The results of this study of online digital services should be used as reference points by all of the actors concerned, so that no citizen is left by the wayside. Ensuring that digital services are easy to use is essential. It is equally important to continue to guarantee that other ways of accessing these services are available.