The Digital Strategy: welcome, but a missed opportunity

Today saw the publication of the long awaited UK Digital Strategy. While it’s welcome to see the focus on creating a safe and secure internet for everyone, the strategy falls short in one important way.

Digital exclusion is a national problem. Across the UK, nearly 1 in 5 people lack at least one of the very basic digital skills needed for everyday life, and 2 million households struggle to afford internet access. 

It can often be a hidden issue, as other public priorities take centre stage.

But over the last two years, as the Covid pandemic raged, digital exclusion was firmly in the spotlight. People and families without internet access were cut off from essential services, children could not connect with their school, and many people, particularly those in later life, were isolated from friends and family.

Although the pandemic had an effect on digital participation – Lloyds Banking Group estimates that 1.5 million more people went online – for some groups, digital engagement declined: those who are older, less affluent, and more likely to have impairments or health conditions.

Some internet providers are offering cheaper social tariffs, but take-up is low, and for many even the cheapest rates are beyond their means. Add to this the impact of the current cost of living crisis, and digital exclusion is set to increase further.

The digital divide may have narrowed since 2020, but it also deepened – and it did so for those in society already facing disadvantage and exclusion.

Despite this wake up call, the Digital Strategy does not recognise the lived experience of so many adults facing digital exclusion. People like Paul, who experiences mental and physical health challenges and has been supported with free mobile connectivity data and local help. Poverty, unemployment, low skills, disability, complex lives, all contribute to – and are reinforced by – a lack of internet access and use.

Addressing these challenges requires personal support, often over a period of time. As well as affordability – 40% of those offline earn less than £15,000/year – many digitally excluded adults have significant motivational barriers: almost half of those offline ‘just aren’t interested’ in using the internet. 

For many adults in the UK, digital inclusion is not just about skills and jobs – it’s about being part of a society and economy that is leaving them behind. Sometimes, it’s about survival.

The Government has made some important and welcome steps, including the entitlement to free qualifications in Essential Digital Skills for adults. The education sector will play a key role in helping many people to ‘upskill’. But by themselves, formal training courses, qualifications and Bootcamps will not address the full scale or depth of the problem. Too many digitally excluded adults are disengaged from education and learning, and do not have the motivation or means to enrol at their local college.

It’s right to focus on creating a digital skills pipeline – the country will need more people with advanced digital skills as the digital economy continues to grow. But to create a pipeline, people need the platform of basic digital skills: and for this they need the motivation and confidence to use the internet, as well as the means to afford a device and internet connectivity.

Of the 1.5 million people supported through the Future Digital Inclusion programme, over three quarters faced multiple disadvantages. Yet over 80% progressed to further learning, showing the powerful impact of community sector support on motivation and aspiration.

We have long known that the voluntary and community sector plays a vital role for those facing the greatest barriers, providing the support they need to overcome challenges and build better lives. The sector plays a vital role in digital inclusion – yet it is not mentioned in the Digital Strategy.

The strategy recognises the important role of libraries in supporting people to learn digital skills. Many libraries do excellent work. But unfortunately, libraries are not universally the route to support for people facing poverty and exclusion. Without a response across the whole voluntary and community sector, we will not Fix The Digital Divide.

Good Things Foundation’s new strategy sets an ambition to grow the number of digital inclusion hubs in communities across the country to 5,000 by 2025. Every person facing digital disadvantage should have a friendly, local place to go for support to use the internet.

There are many people and organisations doing incredible work on digital inclusion with those facing the greatest barriers, in communities across the UK. By not acknowledging this, or saying how the Government will support it, the strategy has missed a huge opportunity. We would be pleased to work with the Government to make the Digital Strategy as ambitious for people as it is for the digital economy, harnessing the power of the community sector to drive real change for those in greatest need. In a post-pandemic era, ensuring everyone can benefit from the digital world has never been more important.

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Adam Micklethwaite

Director of Partnerships and Fundraising

With responsibility for Good Things Foundation’s programmes in the UK, Adam builds ambitious and innovative partnerships with Government, local councils, charitable foundations and the private sector to address society’s biggest challenges using digital.