Q&A  | 

Do digital welfare systems treat different genders equally? With Christiaan van Veen, UN advisor

“If we let men build systems that women use it is likely that the outcome is not optimal in terms of achieving gender equality”.


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Christiaan van Veen is the director of the Digital Welfare State and Human Rights Project at NYU Law. The Project was established in 2019 to advance the understanding of the advent of the digital welfare state and its implications for human rights. He also serves as Special Advisor on new technologies and human rights to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

Can you give us some concrete examples of your work?

In our first year, we have cooperated closely with the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights to advance this work, including through a report to the UN General Assembly on these issues globally, involvement in strategic litigation in the Netherlands in the ‘SyRI-case’ and advocacy around the introduction of a de facto national biometric ID system in Ireland. We also organize events on these topics, including a recent one on Techno-Racism and Human Rights. In the coming year, we are focusing, among other topics, on digital ID systems in Africa and their impact on social exclusion and related human rights violations through in-country research, workshops and other activities. 

What do we understand by the Digital Welfare State?

We coined the term ‘digital welfare state’ on a visit to the United Kingdom with the then UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, in late 2018. What we were investigating in the UK was a system called ‘Universal Credit’, a merging of 6 existing benefits into a new system that was the first major government service in that country to become ‘digital by default’. What we found was that Universal Credit was part of a bigger trend in that country of systems of welfare for the poor as well as a wider range of social rights and social services and other government interventions being transformed through digital innovation.

What is the impact of the digitization of the welfare state on society?

This affects not only how the government operates internally (for example through the automation of decision-making procedures), but also how citizens and others interact with the government (with interaction increasingly being mediated via digital technologies). While digitalization of the welfare state, and the state at large, is a process that has taken place over many decades in the UK and elsewhere, there are an increasing number of examples in recent years of how this is directly affecting individuals and their human rights. This may in part be explained by increased attention from human rights and other civil society organizations, but I think it also reflects a change in how governments operate. The report to the UN General Assembly, mentioned above, tracks those developments in countries across the globe.

What is the digitalisation of social welfare systems worldwide trying to achieve?

The arguments in favour of the digitalization of the welfare state and the state at large are context and country-specific, but through my research I have found many similar arguments being made in favor of the digital welfare state. One is that digitalization makes life easier for those applying for benefits, seeking health care, looking for social assistance and so on. Governments and other proponents are underlining the benefits of a user experience that resembles the experience of a user of a Big Tech service. Another prominent argument is that digitalization makes running a government cheaper and more business-like, for example because new technologies allow governments to run processes more efficiently or target their efforts more rationally. These are admirable goals, of course, and there are certainly examples of these goals being realized. 

Can you give us an example of successful case study?

In my home country, the Netherlands, for example, you can now file your income taxes online relatively easily, which is a big advantage. Yet, we also see that these developments are disadvantageous for certain groups, often those with lower incomes or groups that are more often the victim of discrimination. My home country also offers an example of that, when the government targeted poor neighborhoods in mostly bigger municipalities to predict the likelihood of individual benefit fraud through an algorithmic model.

How can we make sure the digital welfare state is egalitarian in terms of gender?

It is important, first of all, that those individuals who decide on digitalization in the welfare state, those who design digital systems and operate them are not entirely different from those individuals who use these systems and are affected by them.

If we let men build systems that women use it is likely that the outcome is not optimal in terms of achieving gender equality.

Another important factor is to ensure that women are consulted meaningfully from the development to the roll-out of digital innovation in government that may affect their rights. And finally, another important factor is to ensure that the outcomes of a system in terms of gender equality are measurable and monitored to allow for a system to be changed or stopped if necessary.

How can we help the system reach a desired gender-diverse scenario and not just reproduce the existing one?

The digitalization of the welfare state is ultimately a development driven by political objectives. In the end, there is always a political agenda involved in digital transformation of government. That is not good or bad per se, it is merely a relevant circumstance.

Those who care deeply about achieving gender equality need to be involved in political and other debates on the shape and form of the digital welfare state of the future in order to steer matters in the right direction. The work of the Digital Future Society is a good example of that.