Excluding Citizens Isn’t Smart

Colin Watson, Open Lab, Newcastle University
25 November 2021

How does technology, not just policies, impose additional burdens on citizens, reducing access to essential services delivered by digital systems, and contributing to further lost opportunity?

The ninth DataJam North East webinar, hosted together with National Innovation Centre for Data (NICD) and Analyst Network North East (ANNE) explored how digital exclusion can lead to lost opportunities for people.

I outlined my own research at Open Lab, Newcastle University, examining citizens’ experiences of accessing digitally-delivered welfare benefit systems.

In 2016, parts of Newcastle became the first city areas with full service Universal Credit [1]. Related policy decisions have been frequently in the news, including the recent removal of the £20 pandemic-related “uplift” and subsequent adjustment of the earnings taper rate to partially offset this reduction for some claimants.

At the webinar, I discussed how technology itself, not just policies, can impose additional burdens on citizens whose own capabilities may be diminished by events and circumstances, reducing access to essential services delivered by digital systems, and contributing to further lost opportunity.

Cognitive burden

People’s behaviours, such as willingness or ability to use digital systems, are affected by how they interpret problems and make decisions. Cognitive capacity is needed for attention and memory, providing the capability to plan, make decisions, find and solve problems, focus attention, undertake new tasks, cope in challenging situations, control impulses or overcome habitual responses.

The ability for people to undertake tasks is reduced by day-to-day unstable situations, such as having to worry about paying bills, keeping warm and providing food. Health contributes to the effect, and both debt and poverty, common attributes of people claiming welfare benefits, are bad for mental health.

Furthermore, unemployment, under-employment and unstable employment can adversely affect individuals’ health, and financial sanctions related to eligibility for benefit awards can also have short-term negative health effects.

Additionally, stigma, such as being related to “claiming benefits” or “being poor”, has been found to diminish cognitive ability and suppress uptake of relevant support. A recent study argues the removal of the Universal Credit “uplift” will further diminish people’s emotional wellbeing and mental health [2].

Administrative burden

A well-documented impact on citizens is administrative burden, which is anything perceived onerous by a citizen that is imposed as the result of implementing a state policy.

Administrative burdens are to individuals what “compliance costs” are to organisations. For citizens, the burdens include learning and preparing, the time taken and effort and costs expended through use and consumption, and the psychological costs, often in the form of stress or worry, frustration, fear or depression.

The balance of these is different for each citizen, such that they find the same systems more onerous or taxing than others, and this can vary day-to-day and as personal circumstances change.

Consequently, for people whose cognitive function is affected by events, health, disability or stigma, additional administrative burdens should be avoided when designing online service provision. The more onerous it is to use or consume a service, the more people will need help, and others will be deterred from accessing their entitlements.

Government services and e-government

E-government and the digital divide are deeply intertwined – the delivery of policies by digital channels have to cater for “service users” being all citizens without limit. Most people in the UK will be eligible for some benefit at some point in their lives, such as the state pension, and all citizens at risk of being poor and needing support, like many people who found themselves in unexpectedly difficult financial situations during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Government services are progressively moving online, and can transfer new administrative burdens to citizens, potentially making it harder for some to access. The most likely working-age people who are internet non-users are those who are economically less active [3], especially those adults on long-term sick leave or who are disabled.

Consequently, there is a large overlap between non-users and those receiving income related welfare benefits, such as for a “digital first” benefit like Universal Credit. This makes it even more important that the design of online welfare benefit systems and the use of related data should therefore seek to minimise the cognitive effort.

In my research, Universal Credit claimants have said how they can be held back through:

  • missing information about rights, the service or system, or about their case
  • slips and lapses or minor errors, including loss of information, such as documents
  • lack of skills/knowledge
  • lags and delays
  • reduced provision through lack of access/accessibility or complete unavailability.

Most of these can be caused by any party in the interaction. For example, a “service user” may not understand what they need to provide, or a “civil servant” may ask for the wrong information.

These increase cognitive load and consequential harms, contributing to exclusion, and may even put some people off using a service completely, losing their rights. Such cognitive limitations make it harder for people to gain and maintain employment.

Therefore, reducing burdens will not only improve people’s interactions with a welfare benefit service, but could also help people improve their financial situation.

Service ecosystems

As complexity increases, citizens rely more on social support networks for help and support, especially during hard times and periods of crisis. These networks are dynamic and changing over time, reflecting the changeability of relationships, employment, family life and precarity. Yet many services are designed for one-on-one interactions.

In practice, people are not solitary agents, and informal and formal sources of support are vital in helping citizens understand eligibility, gather documents and evidence, make and administer their claims.

For example, about a third of all Universal Credit claimants receive some kind of help to make benefits claims, many of whom rely on extra support to make a claim for benefits.

What can be done?

Efficiency should not be the primary objective of technology for navigating life disruptions.

We need to think instead about cognitive load digital exclusion, and how we can use data to support people’s own life experiences. If administrative burdens are transferred to service users, especially at a time when people’s capacity is reduced, people need greater support, and consequently we need to design for these wider ecosystems.

We also need to consider what might remove mental load, thus increasing people’s ability to do other things, such as improving their lives.

If you’re doing smart digital, make it simple, make it familiar, make it quick… and be accurate and consistent.


  1. Universal Credit more detailed guide, Newcastle City Council
  2. “It’s a £20 sort of thing”: the dehumanizing impacts of Universal Credit and the end of the ‘uplift’
  3. UK Consumer Digital Index, Lloyds Bank, 2019