A national wake up call on digital skills

21 May 2020 |Written by Al Mathers


In this time of crisis, the need for support to develop digital skills and motivation amongst those least likely to engage has been revealed as more critical than ever before.

Today sees the release of the Consumer Digital Index 2020; the annual digital skills report for the UK from Lloyds bank. It is one of the most important national temperature tests in our calendar here at Good Things Foundation. The first CDI report was published in 2016 and has consistently tracked the digital and financial capability of people across the UK. This information has been crucial for us as a charity focused on ensuring digital social inclusion for all, and has allowed those in policy and practice to understand where the national need lies and where progress and benefits can be seen.

The headline from this year’s report is strikingz; an estimated 9 million UK adults still struggle to use the internet and their device independently. Inequality is clear, as well as the impact of lack of motivation.

So who does this affect? If you are older you are considerably less likely to be online, with 7% of over 70s lacking the digital skills to shop and manage their money online - an issue compounded by the fact that 77% of people within this age group have very low digital engagement.

We can directly see the impact of this in the current lockdown. People who are already vulnerable, shielding and at home in self isolation, are further disadvantaged by being unable to easily adapt their daily life to one that utilises online services and resources. They therefore struggle to meet their essential, social and financial needs without external support.

If age remains a key factor in 2020, it is not the only one. The CDI data highlights that younger people are still struggling to get online and see the benefit. 52% of those offline are between 60 and 70 years old, and 44% of those offline are under the age of 60. If you have an impairment you are three times more likely to not have the skills to access devices and get online. Being less well off also has a considerable impact on both your level of digital skills and motivation. 40% of benefit claimants have very low digital engagement, and only 70% of those in households earning less than £17,499 have foundational digital skills, compared with 97% of those in households earning £50,000 or more. Finding such low levels of foundational digital skills is alarming. They are a critical first step under the Essential Digital Skills Framework on the journey to safely benefiting from, participating in and contributing to the digital world.

For people in the above groups the economic impact of not being online or using the internet to its full potential is significant and cuts both ways. This means people who are less digitally engaged pay more for the same standard of living compared with those who are digitally included, for example by spending up to £700 more per year on utilities. Alongside this, learning potential is reduced; manual workers who have the right digital skills, access and motivation earn on average an extra £2,160 each year compared with those who are more digitally excluded.

The importance of owning digital skills in the route to success is evident across the workplace landscape, and digital ability is a key attribute needed for job searching and securing appointments. This year’s CDI report found 61% of highly digital citizens used the internet to successfully apply for a job and 71% said that doing this online had helped them improve their future work prospects. Jobs that do not require digital skills are now in a minority, with over two-thirds of roles now requiring digital capability of some kind. But there is evidence from this year’s report that these kinds of benefits are not equally experienced or attained. An estimated 17.1 million (52%) people in the workforce lack digital skills in the workplace; both they and their companies are missing out as a result. Collective action by employers and employees can transform this situation. We are delighted to be an active partner in the FutureDotNow cross-sector coalition which seeks to make this a reality.

Despite this compelling narrative and evidence, the motivational barriers for people who remain offline are not being overcome quickly enough. Over one-third of the offline population reported that the internet doesn't interest them, and 48% of digitally excluded people said ‘nothing’ could motivate them to get online.

Tackling this is an ongoing challenge and one we have talked about in our research Digital Motivation: Exploring the reasons people are offline with Professor Simeon Yates. It continues to be important to understand and respond to the personal hook and relevance of being online which speaks to more universally valued outcomes such as being healthier, happier and better off.

Linked to this, an interesting finding from the Lloyds report: growing awareness of online harms, such as misuse of personal data - which could be seen as a positive behaviour in terms of digital literacy - remains a deterrent for people to do more online, even with data protection policies such as GDPR in place. Reconciling this is an area of great need if we are to expect people to ride times of crisis and live more of their lives online.

But change is also visible. Since last year’s Lloyds report, 1.2 million more people use their devices and the internet independently. It will be interesting to see whether as a result of Covid-19 our behaviours towards digital management of health also adapt; before the current crisis 66% of people had never used the internet or digital apps and tools to manage their health.

I was delighted to read in this year’s CDI that people identify great benefits from being actively online. This is something we hear first hand every time we step into one of our Online Centres, local organisations that support people in communities across the UK to see the worth, and reap the rewards, from the digital world. In 2020 Lloyds found that: 87% of digitally engaged people said it helped them connect better with friends and family, 84% said it helped them to organise their life, 55% said it made them feel more part of a community and 44% said it helped them to manage physical and mental well-being.

The findings of the CDI this year make it clear: the need for improvement around digital inclusion is still crucial. There is an ever present risk of inequality, exacerbated by Covid-19 and all of the challenges it has brought to the country.

But I do have hope that we can see increasing collective and individual action in the short and long term. People are becoming more aware that digital inclusion can change lives. We need to seize upon the momentum of this time and lean further into the great challenges it has asked of all of us. We need to think about all pieces of the digital inclusion jigsaw: access, motivation and skills. And we need our leaders to remember that supporting each of these aspects in isolation can never deliver what a joined up approach can achieve: a transformed and resilient society.

For more information on Good Things Foundation’s response to the Covid-19 crisis please visit: www.goodthingsfoundation.org/coronavirus-and-digital-inclusion