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8 September 2021updated 17 Sep 2021 4:41pm

How to tackle digital exclusion

The rapid shift of essential services online means those without tech skills or access are falling behind, posing a major challenge to levelling up.

By Sarah Dawood

Whether it’s the ability to fill out a job application, to study from home or to stay in touch with loved ones, being online is an integral part of participating in society. Despite this, digital exclusion is still rife and as the digitisation of public services speeds up, millions of people are getting left in the slow lane.

Research from the WorldSkills UK’s Disconnected report shows that nine in ten businesses now expect employees to have basic digital skills – but a staggering 4.3 million people in the UK have no digital skills whatsoever, down to the ability to turn on a device and connect to the internet. Access to broadband is also an issue; while the pandemic accelerated uptake, Ofcom reports that there are still 1.5 million homes across the UK without internet.

The link between digital exclusion and social disadvantage is clear. Those more likely to be digitally excluded are also more likely to be over 65, lower-skilled, on a low income and to have a disability, according to digital inclusion charity the Good Things Foundation. Poverty is often reported to be the biggest correlating factor – a Lloyds Banking Group 2021 report showed that 55 per cent of those earning less than £20,000 per year said they had not used the internet in the past three months.

Alongside improving life prospects, digital inclusion benefits society and contributes to levelling up the UK. Increased employability, higher earnings and more productive businesses and public services all impact the economy positively. Every £1 spend on digital inclusion gives a £15 return, with a £22bn return expected by 2028 if everyone in the UK is given basic digital skills.

Government’s gigabit broadband push

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The government has invested billions into digital infrastructure projects to improve connectivity for those living in remote and rural areas. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) £5bn Project Gigabit scheme will go towards contracts for providers to install gigabit broadband – the fastest available internet – across the UK, giving millions of homes access. The Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme – which subsidises the cost of broadband installation for people in rural areas by up to £3,500 – was also relaunched in April with a funding injection of £210m.

When announcing Project Gigabit details in August, Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said the investment will “create jobs, power up businesses and allow everyone to access vital services at lightning-fast speed”, helping rural regions to level up. But while ambitions are high, they are already being downsized – the Prime Minister initially promised 100 per cent of the UK would be covered by gigabit-capable broadband by 2025, but this has now been scaled back to 85 per cent, a move described by one industry source as a “kick in the teeth” for rural areas. It was also announced at last year’s Budget that only £1.2bn from the allotted £5bn will be made available until 2024.

Ofcom’s latest connectivity report reveals that only 17 per cent of rural UK currently has access to gigabit, compared to 29 per cent of urban areas. “The countryside has been pushed to the back of the queue for fast broadband,” Jo Stevens, shadow secretary for DCMS, tells Spotlight.

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Providing infrastructure and subsidised installation also does not solve the issue of internet affordability for those on low incomes – often termed “data poverty”. Helen Dobson, managing director at digital inclusion charity Citizens Online, argues that more needs to be done to help people with ongoing costs.

“Whilst we welcome any investment into improving internet infrastructure, Project Gigabit doesn’t help people on low incomes to access the internet,” she says. “Vouchers to put in a connection are one thing, but who pays the monthly bills?”

Tackling data poverty through subsidies

Two people learning how to use an iPad
Courtesy of Good Things Foundation

This is where social tariffs come in – some broadband companies such as BT and Virgin Media offer more affordable tariffs for low-income households. In partnership with government, BT launched BT Home Essentials in June, offering 4.6 million homes a cheaper package of £15 per month, resulting in savings of £240 per year.

But most companies are yet to follow suit. Ofcom, the regulator for telecoms providers, has even mooted the possibility of introducing mandatory social tariffs if they do not step up. Citizens Advice estimates that 2.5 million people are behind on their broadband bills.

“There have been positive developments and we are seeing a greater spread of affordable solutions,” says Adam Micklethwaite, director of partnerships and fundraising at the Good Things Foundation. “But there’s a lot more to do, particularly for those on very low incomes, for whom even the more affordable packages are still unaffordable.”

The number of people offline increases in less affluent parts of the UK. In London, 3 per cent of people are completely off-grid compared to 8 per cent in the north-east of England and 13 per cent in Wales. Addressing data poverty is clearly a crucial part of the wider levelling-up agenda to equalise life prospects across the country.

“Digital inclusion has a huge impact on boosting economies, and it impacts much more on rural areas and those that have suffered under-investment over the last decade,” says Stevens. “That’s why [it] is such a big contributor to spreading prosperity across regions.”

For those who cannot afford social tariffs, initiatives offering completely free data packages should also be embedded into communities, says Micklethwaite. Good Things Foundation is working with merged provider Virgin Media O2 on a National Databank, a depository to collect “donations” for distribution to those most in need – a similar concept to a foodbank. The pilot is expected to connect more than 200,000 people by 2023, and the charity is calling on more providers to sign up.

Device donation schemes have similar benefits. During the pandemic, companies such as BT, Google and Vodafone donated electronics to the Good Things Foundation’s Everyone Connected programme, which the charity then distributed via community partners across the UK.

The digital skills gap

Providing internet access addresses one aspect of digital exclusion – another is teaching people how to use it. More than 11 million people in the UK lack some basic digital skills, while disabled people are four times as likely to be offline.

Although billions have been invested into digital infrastructure, more government attention is needed for the skills gap, says Micklethwaite, where a comparatively humble sum could completely transform people’s digital proficiency. A Good Things Foundation report found that if £130m was invested into skills, it would halve the digital divide in the UK over the next four years.

The government has made steps in this space – the Department for Education’s (DfE) Essential Digital Skills Framework lays out a national standard of basic skills for adults. To help people meet this, free qualifications are available for anyone aged 19 and over with no or low digital skills, bringing it on par with entitlements for English and maths. The DfE also launched the Skills Toolkit, a repository of free online courses, including in advanced areas such as coding, to help people upskill or change jobs.

But a big barrier remains in terms of motivation; people who are offline tend to be disinterested in using the internet, says Micklethwaite. “The free qualification is a great policy,” he says, “but many of the people who could benefit from that entitlement are already disengaged from learning. They’re not likely to walk up to a college and ask for teaching. We’re going to need more to fix that.”

Work with community partners

A digital champion teaching an older man how to use an iPad
Courtesy of Citizens Online

To achieve this, there needs to be community spaces that allow people to start their learning journey and build their confidence before transitioning to formal qualifications. Research from the Centre for Aging Better shows that 87 per cent of 50-70-year-olds do not know where to get help with digital skills, while three-quarters of people overall think there should be somewhere in the local community to learn about tech. “We need a national network of community spaces where people can learn digital skills,” says Micklethwaite. “Investment in social infrastructure is vital.”

One such venture is Future Digital Inclusion, funded by the DfE and delivered by the Good Things Foundation, which enlists 200 UK-wide community partners to run digital skills programmes using a bespoke platform called Learn My Way, which breaks down topics into 40 digestible modules.

Digital learning could also be embedded into existing services such as homeless shelters and job centres, Micklethwaite adds, to help ease people in more naturally – a way of “hiding the wiring” while helping them reach other positive outcomes, such as finding employment, a home or mental health support.

Dobson agrees that formal learning could be off-putting for beginners and that an empathetic approach is necessary – learning can be tailored to individuals while “digital champions” should be assigned within community services. “We need to give people a reason to get online in the first instance,” she says. “This could be gardening, football, local history, music – all of these interests can be enhanced online.”

Long-term goals for digital inclusion

The Good Things Foundation is calling on government to end data poverty in the UK by 2024. Individual projects will not achieve this alone so what structural changes can make this happen?

Digital inclusion needs “strategic prioritisation”, says Micklethwaite; it needs to be embedded within all areas of policy, not only those devoted to education or broadband, and within major programmes such as the Kickstart Scheme and Restart Scheme.

Additionally, digital engagement should be thoroughly woven into communities. A learning course needs more than a teacher, a computer and a physical space – it needs local leaders’ backing, an accessible platform, a team of coordinators and a clear brand identity communicated locally to encourage participation.

Commitment from leaders is key to creating well-integrated programmes. Some have made strides – Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester has, committed to helping all over-75s, under-25s and people with disabilities get online during his term. All leaders would do well to commit to similarly bold targets, says Micklethwaite.

Ensuring policies are sustained would also create real change, adds Dobson. The government’s Essential Digital Skills Framework is a tangible benchmark and should be embedded into primary school curriculums, while funding should be ongoing rather than token gestures. DCMS’s £2.5m Digital Lifeline Fund was launched in February to help people with learning disabilities get online during the pandemic – it was a positive step but did not go far enough, she says.

“The funding was welcome but it was short-term with little consideration for sustainability,” she says. “Helping people to develop digital skills and confidence – especially vulnerable people or those with learning disabilities – takes time and patience.”

Businesses and colleges have a part to play, too. Employers can help by tackling data poverty through their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes and providing digital training for employees. Stronger partnerships between educational institutions and community organisations would help to build a pathway from local lessons to formal qualifications.

Most importantly, if the digital divide is ever to be eliminated, there needs to be cross-sector collaboration. “Digital exclusion won’t be fixed by one organisation,” says Micklethwaite. “It needs to be on everybody’s agenda. We need to see a coherent, integrated strategy for eradicating digital exclusion, we need to see investment and we need to see action.”

In the meantime, people should not be left behind – as digitisation progresses, it is vital that we retain traditional forms of access. Nobody should be cut off from filing a tax return, buying groceries or filling out a census. “Making essential services digital by default is anxiety-inducing and unlikely to encourage more digital interaction,” says Dobson. “Not using the internet should be a valid option and catered for. Offline forms of communication, at least via telephone, should be available.”

This article originally appeared in our issue Regional Development: Access to Opportunity. Download the full issue here.

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