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Sunday, 27 December 2020

A new report has shone a light on the digital literacy hurdles facing people in NSW, which is making filling out basic forms for essential services a near impossibility.

The report entitled, Helping Clients fill in Forms undertaken by the Reading Writing Hotline, with support from NCOSS, highlights the urgent action needed to stop people falling through the cracks.

According to the report, which explored the views of community services organisations assisting people on the ground:

  • 92 per cent of respondents believe the literacy and numeracy challenges faced by their clients prevented them from improving their quality of life.
  • 100 per cent of respondents report that digital literacy is a barrier for their clients accessing services, and
  • According to the OECD, 44 per cent of Australians have levels of literacy that impinge on their ability to access the services they need.

NCOSS CEO Joanna Quilty said the research must be a wake-up call for the NSW Government to ensure everyone can access vital support services.

“The research highlights that many in our community struggle with low levels of literacy and they are at risk of missing out on vital supports as a result,” Ms Quilty said.

“When you combine this with increasing digitisation of government services, poorly designed forms and complex application processes, you are putting up barriers to improving people’s quality of life.”

The research also demonstrates that natural disasters, like bushfires and COVID-19 are exacerbating the problem.

More people are experiencing disadvantage and need to access services such as Centrelink income support, state housing assistance and/or other supports.

In some instances, they may not have a home computer, internet connection or an email address, let alone the literacy skills required.

Ms Quilty said in the face of growing demand it was local community organisations who were going above and beyond to support people struggling with forms.

“We are seeing rising demand for supports, and it is community organisations finding innovative ways to support people to understand complicated instructions, navigate disparate systems, and fill in forms to qualify for support,” the NCOSS CEO said.

“However, non-government organisations are generally not funded to provide this service and for those that are, the level of need far outweighs the resources available.”

The report makes a number of common sense recommendations to improve the current situation, including:

  • Ensure that existing Government ‘style’ guidelines and standards are consistently applied across key customer-facing agencies so that relevant content, materials and digital services are in plain English, easy to navigate and meet the diverse needs of the community.
  • When designing forms and processes, ensure that the ‘end user’ is kept front of mind. This is particularly important for people facing other challenges on top of their literacy issues. The advice provided to the research project by the NSW Council of Intellectual Disability shows that simple, practical improvements to a ‘problematic’ form can make a big difference and that involving end users in the design leads to a better product.
  • Require key customer-facing agencies to set up helplines to provide practical guidance to those struggling to fill in forms and/or complete application processes for government services.
  • In light of rising demand, recognise and adequately resource the valuable role played by trusted, local community organisations in assisting vulnerable people to fill in forms and navigate complex online systems. Savings made by Government from moving processes online could fund the provision of digital literacy support grants.


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Media contact: Nick Trainor 0407 078 138