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Lim, Iris (2022) Makers, Brokers, and Migrants: Experiences of Digital Government in South Korea and the United Kingdom. PhD thesis. SOAS University of London. DOI:

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The use of websites and mobile applications to deliver public services has gained widespread popularity throughout local, national, and international institutions. However, the qualitative aspects of digital government services remain understudied, especially regarding how migrant users are included within this digital shift in public service provision. This dissertation addresses this gap through a multi-sited digital ethnography in South Korea and the United Kingdom (UK), home to two of the world's most robust digital government systems. Drawing on 16 months of participant observation in Seoul and London, qualitative interviews, and digital content analysis, this research explores both the behind-the-scenes processes involved in building digital government platforms and migrants' day-to-day experiences of accessing and navigating welfare benefits, education, and housing services, as well as immigration processing, online. Despite being widely hailed as world-leaders in digital government, both South Korea and the UK have issues when it comes to reaching migrant users effectively – something apparent prior to, although further accentuated by, the rush to digital processes triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic. This research takes a micro-level look at the lived-experience of three invisible groups within these government digital services to better understand how and why these issues persist: (1) the makers behind-the-scenes, researching, developing, and managing these digital government platforms; (2) the community volunteers, teachers, social workers, and others who, although not seen as doing digital work, act as digital brokers to help migrants access and navigate these online services; and (2) the invisible migrant users of digital government services, who fall outside of the category of digital citizens that states see as their key service users. This research finds that makers of digital government remain distant from their end-users and are mostly unaware of migrant users of their products. This is due to the various ways their roles and work are organised that do not enable and allow for digital makers to easily connect to their end users. In examining the experience of brokers who help migrants navigate these digital services, this fieldwork finds that the digital aspects of their work are not considered. This is due to their various stressors working on the frontline of public service delivery that contrasts with the limited ways that digital policymakers and the wider public service sector sees their role. These experiences of digital makers and brokers reproduce and entrench the particular barriers to digital service access faced by migrant users. Finally, for the migrant users, this analysis explores the issue of the digital accessibility as it cuts across diverse groups of migrants within the UK and South Korea – examining how immigration status, generation, ethnicity, class, and other factors differentiate expectations and experiences of digital inclusion among migrants. However, perhaps more importantly, this research finds that migrants become their own brokers in understanding, navigating, and responding to digital government systems, as it becomes clear that policy efforts directed towards promoting their digital inclusion, primarily through a myriad of formal engagements from third sector organisations, too often fail. In offering this fine-grained, socially-embedded analysis of the processes of digital government, this research reveals the hidden human agency and experiences behind digital transformations. And, in looking at how the invisible experiences of migrant users connect and interact with the invisibilities of those involved in the making and delivery of digital public services, this research furthers scholarly understanding of the on-the-ground realities of the promises and supposed benefits of digitising government for migrants.

Item Type: Theses (PhD)
SOAS Departments & Centres: SOAS Research Theses
Supervisors Name: Anna Lindley
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):
Date Deposited: 08 Jul 2022 13:31
Funders: Other

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