‘No excuse for inaction’ – is government doing enough to tackle digital exclusion?

After nearly ten years without an updated government plan, PublicTechnology talks to charity Good Things Foundation – a key contributor to a recent parliamentary report – about the importance of digital inclusion

In April 2014 the launch of smartphone-based Apple Pay was still five months away, while OpenAI – the creator of ChatGPT – would not be established for a further year and a half, nine months in advance of the first release of the TikTok app.

Clearly, quite a lot has happened since April 2014 – nowhere more so than in the online world, and the broader technological landscape that surrounds it.

But, in all this time, government has not updated a Digital Inclusion Strategy that is now almost a decade old.

That document, published by the Government Digital Service, set out 10 proposed actions – the first of which was a pledge to “make digital inclusion part of wider government policy, programmes and digital services”.

A key delivery partner for a number of objectives set out in the strategy was Go ON UK – a charity alliance which, in 2016, was merged into the doteveryone think tank which, as of 2023, has itself been defunct for more than three years.

In the meantime, the issue of digital exclusion – emphasised by the pandemic and compounded by the cost-of-living crisis – has seemingly remained every bit as pronounced and pressing it was the last time the government set out a policy to tackle it.

“E-waste is such a hidden issue, and we’re running this initiative – which is both environmentally and socially positive – and yet organisations are finding so many barriers to be able to donate their own devices.”

Hannah Whelan, Good Things Foundation

A recent parliamentary report says: “Fully 1.7 million households have no mobile or broadband internet at home. Up to a million people have cut back or cancelled internet packages in the past year as cost of living challenges bite. Around 2.4 million people are unable to complete a single basic task to get online, such as opening an internet browser. Over five million employed adults cannot complete essential digital work tasks. Basic digital skills are set to become the UK’s largest skills gap by 2030. This all has profound consequences for individual wellbeing and multibillion-pound implications for UK productivity, economic growth, public health, levelling up, education and net-zero objectives.”

The report, published in June by the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, called on ministers to urgently publish a new digital inclusion plan, the ambitions of which should be delivered by “a new cross-government unit [based in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology] with direct input from Number 10”.

Peers recommended that the strategy should focus on five core areas: helping with the cost of living; investing in basic digital skills; supporting community inclusion hubs; enabling smaller and local telecommunications providers to better compete with larger rivals; and ensuring that digitally excluded groups are not further marginalised by the use of algorithms in public services.

The committee set a deadline of 20 September – now less than a week away – by which it asks government to complete and publish a detailed response to the report, and its recommendations. DSIT indicated to PublicTechnology that the government intends to formally respond to the issues raised by peers.

A spokesperson added that, in the meantime, government remains engaged in activities intended to target digital exclusion.

“Because of government action, 99% of the UK now has access to a range of social broadband and mobile tariffs, starting from as low as £10 per month, and thanks to our £5bn Project Gigabit, 77% of the UK is now covered by gigabit broadband, up from just 6% at the start of 2019,” they added. “We’re making sure no one is left behind in the digital age by putting essential digital skills on an equal footing in the adult education system alongside English and maths, and offering those with limited digital skills the opportunity for free educational training.”

The digital divide
Although the Lords report states that exclusion can “affect people from all background”, age, socio-economic status, disability, and geographic location are among the most “significant predictors”.

Around 3.9 million people in the UK aged over 65 – representing 31% of the total demographic – are not online at home, while a further 3.8 million are considered “narrow users”.

A total of 2.4 million households counted as being among the lowest socio-economic backgrounds have no internet at home and another 3.6 million use it only narrowly, according to the report.

Peers also found that “people with disabilities account for a disproportionately large number of internet non-users and are more likely to report lower levels of confidence”, while “there are significant geographical variations in digital access [and], despite progress on broadband and mobile rollout in recent years, rural areas remain more likely to face difficulties accessing a decent internet connection”.

April 2014
Date of publication of government’s most recent Digital Inclusion Strategy

Proportion of those over 65 without internet access at home, according to a Lords committee

2.4 million
Number of households considered as being among the lowest socio-economic backgrounds that have no internet connection

Redbridge Council, Ocado and Microsoft
Organisations that have been among those to contribute to the 16,000 devices collected by Good Things Foundation’s National Device Bank

Number of people given free connections via Good Things Foundation’s National Databank

Government intervention to address such issues could not only help make it easier for otherwise excluded people to access key services, but could also help support economic growth and deliver major savings for the public purse, according to evidence provided to the Lords committee.

A study commissioned by digital inclusion charity Good Things Foundation working alongside outsourcer Capita – and with research conducted by the Centre for Economics and Business Research – estimated that plugging the existing gap in the UK workforce for basic digital skills would generate a cumulative £2.7bn for businesses nationwide. Additional skills would also enable increased use of online public services that the research calculates could provide government with annual savings of £221.5m by 2032 – and a cumulative tally of almost £1.4bn in the next nine years.

Good Things Foundation was a key contributor to the Lords report. The Sheffield-based charity describes its core objective as being to “fix the digital divide”.

Advocacy manager Hannah Whelan tells PublicTechnology that the charity’s work – and the issue of inclusion – matters because “digital is the enabler” to so many critical services.

“In our modern world, if you want positive health outcomes, then you need digital access. If you want access to education and employment, then you need digital access,” she says. “So many government services are digital by default [such as] going to your GP or accessing Universal Credit.”

In the short term, Good Things Foundation echoes the call from the Lords committee for government to create a new digital inclusion strategy.

State interventions that Whelan says could be impactful include greater investment in digital inclusion and skills, a reduction in VAT on social broadband tariffs, and sustainable public funding for the community entities that typically deliver training and assistance, such as digital inclusion hubs that exist across the country.

Many such organisations will be among the thousands of skills and support providers that constitute the partner ecosystem of Good Things Foundation – the National Digital Inclusion Network – that represents one of three key strands of the organisation’s work.

Alongside this, the charity runs a National Databank, which has provided 500,000 people with free data connections, supported by donations from network operators Virgin Media O2, Vodafone and Three.

Good Things Foundation last year launched a complementary initiative – the National Device Bank – through which it is seeking businesses and public bodies to donate IT equipment they no longer require, which can then be wiped and refurbished and passed on for use by digitally excluded people.

The programme has already received donations of devices from public sector organisations including Redbridge Council in London, as well as commercial firms such as Ocado and Microsoft which, with machines wiped using software accredited by the National Cyber Security Centre, serves as a “really good example of how security shouldn’t be an issue”, according to Whelan.

These donations have contributed to the total of 16,000-plus devices that have been given to the scheme since its launch in April 2022. More than a quarter of these are already in the hands of users, delivered by 267 hubs overseen by Good Things Foundation.

“[Digital exclusion] has profound consequences for individual wellbeing and multibillion-pound implications for UK productivity, economic growth, public health, levelling up, education and net-zero objectives.”

House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee

The organisation’s advocacy manager tells PublicTechnology that increased support for the National Device Bank is another key step the government could take to support digital inclusion.

“E-waste is such a hidden issue, and we’re running this initiative – which is both environmentally and socially positive – and yet organisations are finding so many barriers to be able to donate their own devices,” she adds.

With just a few days remaining until the deadline by which it has been asked to provide details of its plans, what the government – or may not – do next to tackle digital inclusion may soon become clear, after nearly 10 years without a new plan.

“The government must show leadership on tackling digital exclusion,” said the Lords report, in its conclusions. “This is a complex task and the government cannot solve everything, but that is no excuse for inaction.”

Sam Trendall

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