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The Policy Ask with Helen Milner: “Fixing the digital divide is essential to unite the country”

The CEO of the Good Things Foundation on social broadband tariffs, tackling e-waste and improving people’s online literacy.

By Spotlight

Helen Milner OBE is the group CEO of Good Things Foundation, a digital inclusion charity working in the UK and Australia. Good Things Foundation provides a range of free, hyper-local digital inclusion services through the National Digital Inclusion Network. Milner has more than 30 years’ experience working in digital and education across private, public and civic sectors.

How do you start your working day?  

I usually start the day with an hour or more of the Today programme to get my news fix while I graze emails and Slack messages. Sometimes I need to be in early morning meetings with the board or the team at our Australian subsidiary charity based in Sydney. I love a list so I start with two “must dos” for the day – the most important thing and the most urgent thing.

What has been your career high?    

In 2011, I spun Good Things Foundation out of Ufi (the UK public body that ran the online course provider, Learndirect). I knew that people in the UK needed support to gain digital skills, and the partnerships we had with thousands of community-based organisations in the network we had built (the beginnings of what is now the National Digital Inclusion Network) was key to reaching the people most at risk of being left behind. I knew I had to do something as the network was due to be left unsupported. It took a great team, perseverance, and multiple tricky conversations where we were told that it couldn’t be done. I’m so proud of all we have achieved so far, and I know the uphill struggle to make it happen was worth it. With at least one in five adults unable to benefit fully from digital there is still so much to do, but I believe we can fix the digital divide.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?  

Forks in the road are always challenging, resulting in big decisions that affect people’s lives. When the pandemic hit, the need for digital support was greater than ever. To help those in need, we decided to bring £380,000 out of our reserves to award as hardship grants to some of our local community partners who were facing huge demands on their services and big losses in their income.

However, the pandemic also brought opportunities, and we gratefully said “yes” to working with partners to get devices and mobile connectivity data out to people we knew were completely cut off from family, friends and essential services, who provide medical help, food delivery, support and communications. These decisions could have been catastrophic for our charity if we misstepped – but at the time we knew they were the right thing to do for the people who needed our help.

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If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?   

Be more aware of the moments of history you’re involved with. You are breaking new ground, developing services for learning, even before the birth of the world wide web – but don’t take it all for granted.

I was naive and I didn’t realise what a big deal that was until about 20 years later when I realised that my early days working in this field were more than a decade before Google was even invented.

I’ve always valued that I’ve been lucky enough to be working in the early days of web-based services and ideas, but I’d also want my younger self to keep on the same path and make sure that internet innovation was positive and inclusive, being used to help people who are left behind or coming back to learning later in life.

Which political figure inspires you?  

When I was starting my career there were very few inspiring female political figures. I’d like to single out Jacinda Ardern who has been a brave and innovative leader. Always authentic, she is willing to express her own emotions at times of crisis and through that connects with people. She is both compassionate and strong, both open and transparent about what she didn’t know. And she ran a country.

What policy or fund is the UK government getting right?  

“Assisted digital”, which is about providing physical access or support to use digital services, has the potential to really support people on the wrong side of the digital divide. Gov.uk’s Service Manual on Assisted Digital states “you must make sure everyone who needs your service can use it”.

This is good in principle – but it doesn’t go far enough, especially for people who don’t have a digital device, or who lack the very basic skills needed for an online transaction, or the confidence on how to complete one. A great enhancement would be to include physical support to use digital channels. I’m currently working on an idea for the next government: the National Network for All, which ensures there is an in-person, informal hub in every community to help people get online and get informal help to use essential digital public services. That would complement the “assisted digital” currently on offer. Fixing the digital divide is essential if the country is to be united.

And what policy should the UK government scrap?  

The government needs to scrap internet tax. Broadband social tariffs (cheaper broadband contracts) help many of those on the lowest incomes to get online. They’re typically available for people accessing state benefits in the UK, but they still aren’t affordable for everyone.

Currently broadband connectivity is taxed at 20 per cent, including social tariffs. With savings passed on to end consumers, the government cutting VAT on broadband social tariffs to 0 per cent would ensure many more communities are able to stay connected. “Social broadband” would then be taxed the same as biscuits.

We worked out that eligible people would save about £36 a year – on top of the tariff discount – if broadband social tariffs had 0 per cent VAT. Every pound helps households facing financial hardship. And if everyone who was eligible took it up then it would mean £150m a year back in the pockets of people on very low incomes.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to? 

The Online Safety Act is being phased in and I’m delighted. The principle of a “duty of care” on tech companies to ensure their users, especially children, are protected and safe online is right. The law isn’t perfect but I love the headline ambition for the UK to be a world leader in making the internet safer. I want to see political leaders across all parties articulating that same level of ambition for inclusion. AI is going to bring new opportunities and threats for online safety, and for inclusion. So we’ve got an even more urgent reason to ensure everyone has somewhere local to go for digital support they can trust. 

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?  

Examples from Uruguay and Australia provide great learnings. In 2007, Uruguay put in place a programme called Plan Ceibal, which meant every child in state schools and their teachers had their own laptop, and every school had internet access. The programme is still running and has a firm focus on social inclusion, ensuring greater equity for children. It also meant that the country was in a good position to switch to home learning during the pandemic as the necessary internet devices and access were already in place.

In Australia, the Be Connected programme is entering a new contract with the federal government which will mean continuous funding for 11 years. This is a digital literacy scheme for people aged 50 and over, and has had support from both major political parties.

Three lessons relevant to both: first, prioritising digital inclusion to create successes in educational policy and attainment; second, supporting not just the intended individuals, but also their surrounding community; and third, implementing and maintaining good policy – too often, good ideas come and go. If it works, don’t stop it.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?  

A law that helps to fix the digital divide and the planet too. E-waste is the world’s fastest growing waste stream. Although my heart lies in digital inclusion, I am also passionate about the environment. Good Things Foundation’s National Device Bank tries to tackle both issues head on by professionally wiping the data from old, unwanted tech that has been donated by businesses and public sector bodies, then distributing the refurbished kit to digitally excluded communities. If I could pass one law this year it would tackle digital exclusion and e-waste in one go by requiring all government departments, public sector agencies and large businesses to always reuse for social good before recycling or dumping unwanted tech.

[See also: We should open-source the law]

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