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Can we tackle the digital divide?

Why digital transformation cannot succeed if it entrenches inequality

We recently identified our top ten trends for digital transformation in central government this year, highlighting the more efficient use of data, cloud migration, and improved digital citizen experiences, amongst others.

Yet whilst it's important to work towards these aims, digital transformation will only take us so far when the adoption of digital technology in certain sectors of our society is limited. This is the digital divide, and even as many of us reap the benefits of digitalisation in our work and private lives, others risk being left behind.

According to the Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index 2020, 11.7 million people in the UK lack Essential Digital Skills for life – a measure of the digital literacy and capability needed to navigate today's online world. With this portion of the population unable to use the internet effectively, even the most successful digital transformation initiatives will fall short unless measures are put in place to prevent them from falling through the gaps.

One organisation working to combat the digital divide and the issue of digital exclusion in the UK is Good Things Foundation, which promotes the support and skills in digital technologies people need to overcome social challenges. Foundry4 spoke to CEO Helen Milner, to find out more.

The digitally excluded life

Even if we don't consider ourselves particularly tech savvy, for those of us who use digital technologies as a matter of course it can be easy to overlook the struggles of others. The first step in understanding the issues many people face when accessing digital technologies is therefore to understand how this directly impacts their lives.

Helen Milner defines digital poverty as those people who have either never used the internet before or have very low digital skills. Another useful term in the discussion is the 'limited user' - someone who has very low skills and only accesses a very small number of apps or websites, with Ofcom listing this at seven or less.

“Digital exclusion affects all different aspects of life,” Milner says. “If you're unemployed it is practically impossible now to look for work if you're not online, particularly during the pandemic where a lot of interviews have been done this way. We know that people who are digitally excluded cannot benefit from online healthcare – that includes digital health services but also apps to help manage physical and mental health. Finally, we also know within employment that people without digital skills earn less. Even in something you might consider non-digital such as manual labour, it is estimated that those with digital skills earn £2160 more than those without.”

A 100% digitally included UK

Put this way, it is easy to see how digital exclusion directly translates into social exclusion, with limited digital users prevented from accessing the full scope of civic life.

According to the Good Things Foundation, there are three main barriers that must be tackled if this is to be rectified and we are to see a fully digitally included society. Individuals must 1) have adequate digital skills; 2) ownership of a device and affordable access to the internet; and 3) motivation to use this technology, including an awareness of how it is relevant to them.

With digitally excluded people more likely to come from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, localised, community-based support is needed to engage them with these issues – just as occurs with other forms of aid. This requires a network of groups such as charities, community organisations, and libraries. As Milner states, it is “the co-ordination of that social structure” that can really help.

The role of government

So what's the government's role in all of this? If support is best delivered on a local level, then central government can clearly help by funding these networks and co-ordinating their response. This work is currently driven by central government policy around digital skills and digital inclusion, which is led by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS). It is behind initiatives such as the Digital Skills Partnership, which brings together public, private and charity sector organisations to fight digital poverty. However, Milner believes that more of a cross-government approach is needed.

“There is still more to be done to ensure that the DCMS policy lead has influence across other government departments,” she says, “and to get more departments interested in this issue. At the moment the government is doing more co-ordination than leadership around digital inclusion, but no one is expecting them to do this all themselves.”

The great homeschooling challenge

The pandemic – and the closure of schools in particular – has brought the matter of digital poverty to a wider consciousness, as children without devices are in danger of receiving no form of education at all. With schools now teaching remotely, education – one of society's great levellers – is now leveraged behind a technology barrier that many households cannot overcome. Although measures have been put in place to address this, Milner is concerned that it is simply not enough.

“The government is distributing laptops and devices, there are schemes such as the BBC's Make A Difference Give A Laptop, the Daily Mail's Computers for Kids campaign, and calls from public figures to do more...” she says. “There are a lot of schemes but the tragedy is schools are telling us it is still not helping children enough.”

That said, the compounding effect of coronavirus measures on digital poverty is not confined to children alone.

“The pandemic has really exposed the wider issue of digital exclusion,” Milner adds. “Not just amongst children but for adults who are looking for work, who have health issues, who are shielding or living alone. During the pandemic their lives have been particularly tough.”

Looking ahead

For the future, it is clear that the combined action of government, charity and business is the best route to address this issue – which in the eyes of the Good Things Foundation, at least, it is possible to solve.

“We have a blueprint for how to achieve a 100% digitally included country,” Milner says. “On skills we are asking for a digital catch up. On affordable connectivity we are calling for the creation of a data poverty lab - to enable the public to donate unused data to those who need it.”

As covid-19 has digitised more of our society at a rapid pace, those without the means or skills to engage with technology risk falling behind even faster than in a pre-coronavirus world. And perhaps it's worth changing our approach to digital skills too – to think about them in terms of a continuum, rather than as something we either have or do not.

Even for the less-marginalised, upskilling in digital technologies is always valuable. It's something we can all do for ourselves, and an asset employers can relatively easily give to their staff. With technology evolving constantly, that's a worthwhile lesson for all of us to bear in mind.

Author

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Sarah Finch
Research and Insights Manager
Foundry4

Sarah is renowned for her ability to communicate complex concepts with clarity. She plays a central role in managing the insights programme at Foundry4.

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