Cyprus is in danger of creating a “digital divide” that leaves less tech-savvy groups such as the elderly and disabled behind in the race toward e-government services, the Commissioner for Administration and Protection of Human Rights Maria Stylianou-Lottides warned on Friday.

Lottides’ warning came in a report concerning a complaint against the deputy ministry of digital innovation and the social insurance department received by her office where a member of the public laid out the difficulties she had in submitting an online application for sickness benefit through the Ariadne portal.

Lottides emphasised that the digitisation of administrative services offers a multitude of benefits, both for the administration and for the citizens.

However, she said it should be ensured that online public services are fully accessible to all, “since technological barriers are capable of leading to poverty, social exclusion, limited autonomy and loss of economic or other opportunities”.

She suggested that government agencies be vigilant to avoid disparities in access to – and use of – technology, also known as the “digital divide”.

By definition, digital development should leave no one behind and should integrate all citizens in the digital society, regardless of their income, social status, geographic location, health or age and take into account, in particular, the fact that often the people who face the most precarious situations are in all probability those who depend even more on administrative procedures to access their rights,” Lottides said.

At the same time, she added, it should not be overlooked, on the one hand, the freedom of choice of each citizen in terms of how they relate to the administration, and on the other hand, the time each person needs to adapt to the changes brought about by digitisation, “as well as the fact that there are persons who will never be able to become digitally literate”.

Lottides said elderly people especially are not tech-savvy and pointed out that their physical capabilities are also likely to deteriorate over time such as diminishing eyesight, arthritis and other mobility problems and well as being unable to keep up with ever-changing technology and complex information and instructions that make it hard for them to use apps and devices.

“An integrated strategy should be promoted, which will include a series of targeted actions and measures, with special emphasis on the needs of vulnerable groups of the population,” she said.

The Commissioner recommends simplifying as much as possible the digital government systems and procedures so that they become more user-friendly, understandable and easy to use.

She also recommended training programmes so that basic digital skills be taught and everyone can participate in society unhindered.

There should also be a back-up or alternative system in place for face-to-face contact with the public where necessary and by appointment, Lottides said. A free helpline for online government services should also be in place with “qualified personnel who respond immediately and efficiently” to calls from the public to help them through the online processes, she said.