A roadmap to close the digital divide

Our Group CEO Helen Milner blogs about the need for a roadmap to achieve a 100% Digitally Included Nation.

Last night we heard from the Prime Minister about the Government’s roadmap for easing the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions in England. We heard him talk about a future that will be ‘very different and incomparably better’ than today. We’re all hoping so!

But as the nation’s families welcome the end to home schooling and we look forward to opportunities to see our friends and families again, it’s important that the cold harsh reality of digital exclusion doesn’t become something that melts from national consciousness in the warm, bright Spring sunshine.

The digital divide existed before the pandemic and will continue to exist when the pandemic is under control. Scrolling through my Twitter timeline, reports show the pandemic has entrenched and magnified inequality in all areas of life, from health to income, employment to housing. We haven’t all experienced the pandemic equally and we will definitely not all be experiencing the next months and years of recovery equally.

So while this is a moment for all of us to feel more optimistic, it’s also a pivotal moment for the Government to show it is truly committed to levelling up our society.

As Helen Buckingham, Director of Strategy at the Nuffield Trust succinctly put it this week; “COVID-19 has highlighted the inequalities that already existed in society. If we regard ourselves as a good society, we need to do something about that.”

Increased awareness of digital inequalities

During lockdown it’s been heartening to see major figures including England rugby star Mario Itoje using their voices to prompt action to tackle digital exclusion for children in households without devices. We’ve also seen the BBC re-launch its Make a Difference: Give a Laptop campaign to help provide access to laptops and devices for people in need.

Through our own Everyone Connected programme (previously DevicesDotNow), working with our community partners up and down the country, we’ve continued to help vulnerable adults to get online, giving them a vital lifeline to stay in touch with loved ones, to access Government support, to find work and speak to their GP online. I’ve been delighted by the huge financial support from businesses and charities and humbled by the public donations made to our Crowdfunder campaign, which now stands at over £57,000.

So now there’s an increase in awareness about the devastating impact being on the wrong side of the digital divide can cause; let’s be ambitious about closing it.

According to Lloyds Consumer Digital Index 2020, 9 million adults in the UK can’t use the internet without help. Where digital for life and work has become the new normal, it isn’t OK to leave millions of people behind.

With unemployment predicted by the OBR to hit 2.6m in 2021 and companies changing at pace due to the pandemic, ensuring that people in work and seeking work have digital skills will be key to powering the post-Covid economic recovery. Research from the CEBR shows that for every £1 invested there is a £14.80 benefit – this means a £70 million investment has an impact of £1 billion to the economy.

In December, Digital Infrastructure Minister Matt Warman committed in Parliament to work with Good Things Foundation to fix the digital divide and said the Government’s commitment to this agenda ‘should not be doubted for a second’.

Now would be a good time to make good on that pledge, and banish any doubt, with firm policies and funding to tackle the digital divide once and for all, for the benefit of everyone in our society.

We need an ambition that we can close the digital divide – because we can. An ambition for a 100% digital included nation.

We need an ambition and a joined up plan – a national roadmap setting out the mini-milestones along the way.

I think the Government knows how critical closing the digital divide is to the nation’s prosperity, but they are fearful that if they articulate this ambition then they will have to pay the bill for it alone. That’s not the case. Industry and the social sector are ready to work together, with Government, to make this happen. At Good Things Foundation, we and our thousands of community partners are ready and willing to play our significant role. Our Blueprint could be a good start.

Just as we heard from the Prime Minister yesterday evening about his roadmap for coming out of lockdown, we now need a roadmap for achieving 100% Digitally Included Nation.

Helen Milner OBE

Group Chief Executive

Helen Milner OBE is the Group Chief Executive of Good Things Foundation. Founded as a staff-led mutual charity in the UK in 2011, Helen led the establishment of a subsidiary charity, opening an office in Sydney in August 2017, and running the Be Connected Network for the Australian Government.