Digital government is blind to millions of ’non-average’ citizens

Administrative law is designed for the ’normal citizen’ with an average income, education, intellectual and digital skills, a stable family, and good health. Individuals who deviate from this ideal (such as seniors, persons with disabilities, single parents, immigrants) are often overlooked in the regulatory process or treated with reluctance. The result is the exclusion of everyone who is ’different’. With the digitalization and automation of government, this situation has worsened. It does not have to be this way. The solution is more empathy. "We must use technology to make administrative law empathic toward all citizens," argues administrative law professor Sofia Ranchordás. She will deliver her inaugural address at Tilburg University on Friday, April 26, 2024.

Since the Childcare Benefits Scandal (Toeslagenaffaire) in the Netherlands, there has been increasing discussion about the human scale, customization, and the inclusion of ’citizen perspectives’ in the debate on digital administrative law. For example, the new Act Strengthening the Guarantee Function of the General Administrative Law (Awb), currently under consultation, aims to improve the procedural position of the citizen. Both the Council of State and the National Ombudsman have called for more meaningful contact between government and citizens in the digital age. The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the AI Act both require human intervention in automated decision-making. Nevertheless, we rarely ask the question: who is this ’person’- And who is the citizen according to the Dutch General Administrative Law Act (Awb)?

The ideal citizen

Administrative law and government policies are designed with an ideal citizen in mind: a middle-aged man with a stable family, a steady job, and average income, education, literacy, and digital skills. The average citizen is someone who can exercise his rights in the digital age with little or no government assistance. He understands his obligations and relies little on the government. Decision-making and public services can therefore be fully automated, as the average citizen can do everything by himself. Yet, this image of the average citizen is not based on robust science, modern perceptions of the citizenry, and sociotechnological developments. It is, instead, based on stereotypes from the 1950s which divide the world in two categories: ’average citizens’ and their ’deviations’ for whom exceptions must be made. However, a very large number of citizens does not fit within this traditional image of the average citizen. For example, every year, thousands of people struggle to identify what their rights are and how to apply for benefits online. Public policy pays little attention to the growing number of ’non-average’ citizens who live alone or do not have a traditional household, have no steady job, or have limited literacy or digital skills.

Administrative blindness

"Administrative law and government policies do not see millions of citizens," Ranchordás points out. They are blind to everyone who is ’different’. And when these less ’average citizens’ are seen (as in the childcare benefits scandal), they are often treated as deviations from the norm or as exceptions. For example, they are more quickly seen as ’potential fraudsters’ by algorithmic risk profiles.

"The average citizen does not exist," argues Sofia Ranchordás. We are unique and too different to be reduced to statistical concepts. Moreover, anyone can experience setbacks and become vulnerable at any time, due to divorce, unemployment, or illness. Vulnerability is not inherent. It is not a condition: Vulnerability is a social construct. In other words, no one is inherently vulnerable. Administrative law and government policies tailored for unrealistic images of ’average citizens’ place millions of citizens in vulnerable circumstances.

Therefore, Ranchordás calls for attention to the study of ’administrative blindness’: administrative rules, procedures, and policies that are blind to those who do not fit the ideal image of the average citizen. I

Empathic government

Is personalized administrative law the solution? "Not necessarily," argues Ranchordás. She proposes three ways to make the government empathic to all citizens:

  • Firstly, a socio-legal study of the ’citizen’ and administrative law in the digital age that considers diverse perspectives, the relationship between gender and regulation, and how to ensure that administrative law does not place citizens in vulnerable situations.
  • Secondly, normalizing diversity in the design of digital government instead of creating exceptions, for example for individuals with disabilities. Thus, the government could, for example, make assistance services available to everyone by default (e.g., a ’citizen shop’ where citizens can walk in for assistance).
  • Thirdly, the use of digital technologies (AI, virtual reality) to make public authorities, which like citizens increasingly live in ’bubbles’, more empathetic and in a better position to understand that setbacks are ’quite normal’.

Inaugural address

Prof. Sofia Ranchordás will deliver her inaugural speech on Friday 26 April, 4.15 PM at Tilburg University. Title address: Staat der blinden, staat der zienden: over bestuurlijke blindheid (Administrative Blindness: All the Citizens the State Cannot See). The speech can also be attended by livestream (in Dutch).