Local authorities and their suppliers must connect the digitally excluded

Various vulnerable groups are among those at risk of lacking the connectivity or skills to engage with public services, according to Graham Cutting of Cantium

Credit: PxHere

We live in an ever-evolving digital world where digital skills, equipment and reliable connectivity are a necessity for accessing a huge variety of services. These services are vital for many cohorts of vulnerable people, and it’s these vulnerable people who are the most likely to be digitally disconnected.

Digitally disconnected groups in the community range hugely: from the elderly and disabled, to those using drug and alcohol rehabilitation services and those who simply cannot afford to get online. Digital exclusion is also closely linked to wider societal inequalities across the whole country.

As a society, we need to equip the whole population with the skills, motivation, and trust to go online and be digitally capable. It’s a vital piece of the puzzle when it comes to the government’s levelling up agenda; the Levelling Up white paper even acknowledges the importance of digital skills and connectivity in developing different areas of the UK.

Much of the time, this begins at the local authority level. According to ONS data, nearly 15 million people in the UK have ‘very low’ digital capabilities and 7% of UK adults have no internet access: how can local authorities begin to drive change forward?

With Covid-19 came a change in culture. Many services are now online, saving staff time, resources and making things more convenient. For those lucky enough to be online, they are being invited to attend health support programmes and vital appointments remotely over the internet. But this presents a challenge to many people who do not have access to the internet or the correct devices.

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Public health teams at many local authorities have rightly recognised a challenge with service users accessing online services as a result of this shift. The implementation of digital champions is a great place to start here – often the missing link is a person, from the local authority, who can identify the individuals needing support in the first place and help link them up with the devices, apps or general digital skills they may need.

Digital inclusion schemes can vary in nature, including tablet borrowing schemes, training programmes, supporting residents over 65 to access digital services, drop-in sessions to increase digital skills, and application assistance for mobile devices. You can even look at ways to provide devices themselves to those who have no access to one. It’s worth looking into what other councils across the country are doing, how they are using digital champions: research best practice, look at what works and think about how to adapt it for your individual needs as a local authority.

Once you are clear on what your requirements are, it will be less difficult to access the correct funding, and to find a suitable delivery partner to make the vision a reality. Using a digital champion is one thing, but as for who provides the devices, apps or organises external services – a delivery partner should be part of the equation. 

Once the foundation is established, local authorities can work to design a solution that enables access to vital services, from health visiting and maternity services to
substance misuse services and other schemes inspired by the idea of social prescribing. Vulnerable groups of people should be able to engage with services while increasing their digital skills, capabilities and confidence, and these are the first steps towards that goal.

Empowered service users
The importance of being able to access online services cannot be understated here. With the support of a digital champion, a council with the right strategy and delivery partner in place, people can be empowered to shop online, attend support groups and help manage their own care using apps on a mobile device. Digital skills can give individuals a way to connect with friends, family and peers. The personal outcomes for this are huge, from increasing confidence to more autonomy in users who access services like remote care. 

For the local authority, too, there are many positives to renewing your focus on digital inclusion in this way. You improve service outcomes like appointment attendance and service uptake, which is an additional way of giving internal staff the opportunity to prioritise workloads more effectively. 

The 2021 Lloyds Consumer Digital Index shows that there has been a significant increase in the number of people who are using the internet, but more needs to be done to support people with low digital engagement. Without a concerted effort, from both council and supplier, to digitally equip vulnerable sections of the population, there is a risk that people will slip through the cracks. Suppliers need to help councils to address this, and to close the digital skills gap, by giving people this increased level of autonomy and support.

Ultimately, we all need to support councils in achieving their goals of enhanced personal outcomes for service users, improving digital literacy in the population, and reducing cost by providing public services remotely. It’s the joint, collaborative effort and a clear vision that provides the foundation for these strategies to give real results. 


Sam Trendall

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