Since the outbreak of Covid-19, the scale of digital exclusion in the UK has been exposed beyond previous understanding. The negative impacts of digital exclusion are felt in all areas of life, from the ability to access work and resulting impacts on income, quality of education, availability of healthcare, costs of goods or services, and even the ability to connect with loved ones. Often those who are digitally excluded experience a range of other social and economic disadvantages, and therefore there is an issue of compounding disadvantage exacerbating existing inequalities.
The impact of the first national lockdown in early 2020 shone a spotlight on the severity of digital exclusion and there were rapid responses from national governments, local government, businesses, charities, and community organisations. At Carnegie UK Trust, we have been involved with digital inclusion for around ten years and had never before seen such a response to the issue.
The way in which the crisis sparked action – the establishing of partnerships, the allocating of resources, and the use of local data and expertise to deliver solutions to those who needed them – has been incredibly valuable. We now have an opportunity to build on that action and to accelerate the process to eliminate digital exclusion in the UK.
Ofcom research shows that 11% of the UK population still do not have access to the internet at home at all. In addition, there are those who do not have the appropriate device, quality of connection, or required skills in order to make use of the digital potential. Beyond this still, there are questions about how devices are maintained or replaced, how many devices might be needed in large households, particularly where there are multiple children and young people who need access to online learning, and how vulnerable adults and children can be protected from online harms. There are no simple solutions, but there is an extensive and growing body of expertise at national and local level which needs to be capitalised on.
This is a decisive moment for us: the pandemic has opened our eyes to long-standing issues of poverty and inequality across the UK. This is an opportunity to redress the balance – and taking steps to eliminate digital exclusion is a vital element in doing that. There are important roles both for national and local government. In our new report ‘Learning from Lockdown: 12 steps to eliminate digital exclusion’, we lay out a plan of action. You can read the recommendations in brief below or view the full version by clicking here.
- Commit to digital inclusion strategies. We are calling for the UK government and each of the devolved governments to publish revised digital inclusion strategies.
- Prioritise co-production. The new digital inclusion strategies produced by the UK government and the devolved governments should be co-produced with those who have lived experience of digital exclusion.
- Collect quality digital data. A systematic review of the available national statistics on digital inclusion should be carried out, to ensure that robust, high-quality data is provided regularly across a range of key measures, broken down by jurisdiction and by demographic group.
- Establish a robust baseline. A new Minimum Digital Living Standard should be established to create a deeper, more comprehensive, universally recognised baseline for what it means to be digitally included in the UK.
- Embed across public services. All public services including health, education, energy and social care should build an increased focus on tackling digital inclusion into their work to support individuals and communities, particularly those experiencing disadvantage.
- Align with anti-poverty efforts. All national and local anti-poverty strategies should include a commitment to improving digital inclusion. Ownership of the digital inclusion agenda needs to be shared across government at all levels.
- Measure programme impacts. National and large-scale digital inclusion programmes should regularly publish and promote their impact and outcomes data.
- Regulate for online harms. The UK government should deliver on its commitment to establish world-leading, effective online harms regulation.
- Invest and build capacity. Further support, resources and incentives should be provided for public, charity and community organisations delivering digital inclusion interventions to undertake the activities and invest in their own digital capabilities. Local networks should be established to ensure joined-up approaches to design and delivery.
- Champion the role of business. The significant contribution from businesses to donate or refurbish devices for digital inclusion initiatives should be recognised and further encouraged.
- Innovate for inclusion. Governments, technology providers and civil society organisations should continue to work together to explore market innovations that reduce the cost of digital access and enhance protection for those on low incomes.
- Ensure a public safety-net. Public provision of digital access through libraries, health and welfare services and community organisations should continue to be made available.
Whilst the recommendations are broad and wide-ranging, there are some key takeaways for local authorities. Namely that while tackling digital inclusion requires dedicated attention and resources, it also needs to be embedded across public services rather than treated as a standalone issue. Local authorities are perfectly placed to align ambitious digital strategies with delivery through knowledgeable local organisations who understand community needs. Local authorities can have a huge impact by ensuring that work to get people online is joined up across their area, and that resources and expertise are shared as effectively as possible.
You can read more about Carnegie UK Trust’s work and get in touch with us via our website here.