Study promotes elderly population’s access to digital public services 

Permanent Observatory for Justice

DR | pvproduction/Freepik

The Centre for Social Studies (CES) of the University of Coimbra, through its Permanent Observatory for Justice, has produced a report on guarantees of Portuguese elder access to public services through new digital technologies, which was included in the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) report.

The FRA’s report on the situation in the European Union regarding the “Fundamental rights of the elderly: guaranteeing access to public services in digital societies”, based on data from Eurostat and the FRA’s Fundamental Rights Survey, including the Portuguese contribution produced by CES, shows that existing legislation is sometimes silent on the risk of digital exclusion and, in particular, the obstacles felt and experienced by the elderly. EU data shows that only 1 in 4 people aged between 65 and 74 have at least basic digital skills. According to the information collected in the report, the elderly population may be limited in their fundamental rights, such as access to healthcare or social benefits in digital societies.

Given the greatly aged population in Europe and the fact that many public services are available online, the FRA is seeking to promote access to public services for the entire elderly population within the framework of the Digital Agenda for Europe by proposing, in accordance with the conclusions drawn from the report:

- Equal access - access to public services, such as social benefits, is a fundamental right, and the elderly must be guaranteed access to digital services.
- Full participation - older people must be guaranteed a say in the design of digital public services that meet their needs.
- New digital skills - countries can use EU funds to help older people improve their digital literacy.
- Combating age bias - peer learning, intra-generational training and avoiding antiquated language should be promoted to combat age bias.
- Inclusive data collection - countries should endeavour to collect systematic data on the digital literacy of people over 74, given that this group will represent 20% of the EU population by 2050.

According to the CES report by Diana Barros and João Paulo Dias, the Portuguese situation is similar to that of other EU countries, with legislation and measures promoting digital inclusion, although most of the time without a focus on the elderly population. However, there are measures to promote the digital society that end up considering the elderly population as one of the most vulnerable, focusing on promoting programmes and training to combat the risks of digital exclusion.

The Digital Transition Action Plan, approved by the Portuguese government in 2020, is one of the cross-cutting instruments that most promotes digital inclusion through online public services and digital skills training for the populations most at risk of exclusion, including the elderly. However, the information available on the levels of access to digital public services and the digital skills of the elderly population is almost non-existent. This leads to two major conclusions which make it necessary to promote: 1) better coordination in public administration with the aim of promoting coherent, articulated and easily accessible digital services for populations with lower digital skills; and 2) the training of the Portuguese population in different contexts, in particular those who show the most significant risk of digital exclusion, such as the elderly population.

As FRA Director Michael O’Flaherty said, “access to public services is a fundamental right. However, the digital transformation risks leaving the elderly population behind. We must close the digital divide, improve digital literacy and ensure that older people can also benefit from technological advances.”