By Suzannah.Brecknell

06 May 2014

The government wants to drastically reduce the number of people who can’t use online services. Suzannah Brecknell digs into its new digital inclusion strategy, which is set to affect civil servants across Whitehall 

One in five Britons don’t have the basic skills and ability to make the most of the internet, according to recent research by the BBC. There are number of reasons why that matters. Concerned about growth? Increasing the number of people using the internet could add £63bn to the UK economy, estimate analysts Booz & Co. Worried about social exclusion and inequality? Providing online access to social housing tenants helped to improve their health awareness and employment levels, according to a report from the Northern Housing Consortium. Cutting your budgets? The Cabinet Office estimates that moving to digital services will save government £1.2bn by spring 2015 – but such a move will involve increasing the number of people able and willing to access services online.

So whichever way you look at it, digital inclusion matters – and the government wants to cut the number of people who are offline by 25% by 2016. By 2020, it aims to ensure that “everyone who can be digitally capable, will be”. Earlier this month the Cabinet Office published a Digital Inclusion Strategy, setting out how the government will meet these targets – or, rather, how government and a series of partners will meet them: the strategy contains 10 actions, just three of which will be carried out by government alone. 

What government will do
The actions which fall to government alone include making sure that all civil servants have the digital skills to use and provide online services – we can expect to see reports from every department mapping civil servants’ skills against a digital inclusion scale – and setting up a cross-government programme to co-ordinate the work being done in different departments to build digital capability. This programme will be managed jointly by the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS): they will provide guidance for departments on how to make good use of digital inclusion services, and put out a “tender for a digital skills programme”. 

Chris Yiu, director of digital participation at the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, is positive about this joined-up approach, but encourages civil servants to go further still. 2012’s Digital Scotland strategy has four pillars, he notes – connectivity; digital economy; digital public services; and digital participation – but these are all viewed as interrelated. “For a number of years, the Scottish Government has talked about [these things] in the round, and has recognised they all very interconnected,” he says. “If you look at what’s happened in Whitehall, there’s a little bit of a disconnect [between different digital areas] and digital inclusion has come relatively late.” While recognising that “the scale of activity in Whitehall” can create a challenge to this sort of joined-up approach, he argues that “this idea of thinking about [digital policy] in the round is helpful.”

A wider agenda

The need to consider digital inclusion as part of wider government policy aims is acknowledged in the Cabinet Office strategy; in fact, the very first action says that departments must link digital inclusion with other programmes and services, identifying where an increase in digital capability would improve policy outcomes and including commitments about inclusion in their digital strategies. 

For Helen Milner, chief executive of digital inclusion social enterprise Tinder Foundation, helping civil servants to understand how wider online access can contribute to their own policy goals will be one of the keys to the strategy’s success. The “strategy is very clear” that digital inclusion must be incorporated into broader programmes and not seen simply as a technology issue, she says: the challenge will be communicating that across the service.

Milner commends the strategy for setting out specific actions which different departments will be carrying out. For example, the Ministry of Justice will work with probation services to boost digital capability among ex-offenders. “There’s a definite desire from GDS for this to be a whole-government strategy,” says Milner; as ever, though, the test will be “what happens next”, and whether departments really incorporate digital inclusion into wider discussions about service and policy design.

Understanding and awareness of digital inclusion is mixed across departments, says Milner, with some pockets of very well-informed civil servants but many areas where officials “know [digital inclusion] is important, but it doesn’t get to the top of the priority list”. The strategy aims to redress this, with promises of specific guidance in the GDS’s Service Design Manual, as well as support from the BIS-GDS team – but Milner says the key factor will be persuading people that inclusion is a tool, not just another distraction from their main policy goals.

 “There’s a lot of work to be done to raise[digital inclusion] in the consciousness of people who are thinking about really knotty issues within their policy areas,” she says, noting that the agenda will be particularly relevant in areas where policymakers are thinking about people with problems such as social exclusion or poor literacy. “Digital inclusion may well be something that could help them to unlock some of those challenges,” she says. Certainly, the figures on digital exclusion do suggest a broad overlap with other characteristics of disadvantage: most (54%) of people who have never used the internet are disabled, and 37% of digitally excluded people are social housing tenants, while 17% of those earning less than £20,000 never use the internet, compared to 2% of those earning more than £40,000. 

Splitting up the tasks
Much of the strategy focuses on work which will be carried out by organisations such as Go ON UK, other charities and corporate partners. This fits neatly with the coalition government’s broad philosophy that government should not aim to deliver all policy goals itself, but should instead commission and support other organisations to do this wherever possible. Given this broad approach, how can government best support these partner organisations?  

One way in which government hopes to add value is by setting shared standards and common definitions which others can use to make progress. Thomas Sweetman is director of Stickyboard, a social enterprise that aims to help build community engagement through online noticeboards. He was recently made a fellow of the RSA thanks to his work on digital inclusion, and welcomes the strategy’s commitment to creating common definitions of digital skills and capabilities. “Grassroots organisations simply do not have the time to come up with their own” definitions, he says, so where government does set common standards “they’re really adding a lot of value.” He adds that few other organisations can fill this role, as they lack the authority, national coverage or broad perspective of central government.

Milner is more circumspect about the value of common standards, apparently wary that progress on tackling digital inclusion could slow whilst organisations await central guidance. Instead, she thinks that it’s government’s role to provide “leadership and ambition” by, for example, adding digital inclusion targets to outsourced service contracts, thereby sending a message to supplier markets that this is a priority. 

The strategy itself is a demonstration of the importance government places on inclusion, says Milner, and she welcomes its publication – but it could be more ambitious, she adds. The strategy estimates that up to 8% of the population may never have basic digital capabilities, and therefore envisages that these people will always need some sort of offline support to access digital services. But Milner thinks that number could be driven down further. Norway had internet usage rates of 98% last year, and she says the UK should aim to be the first G8 nation with a digital inclusion figure in the high 90s.

On funding
Another way in which government shows the priority it attaches to any given initiative is through the funding it allocates to the programme. Total government spending on digital inclusion is hard to pin down, since it’s tied up in a number of other programmes. Some are closely targeted at reducing digital inclusion: at the communities department, for example, the Digital Deal has made £400,000 available on a match-funding basis to 12 social housing providers to build digital capabilities among tenants. Others might have another main goal, but include ways of widening digital access or building skills – the Cabinet Office strategy argues, for example, that the Regional Growth Fund should be considered in digital inclusion work, since it provides funding which enables SMEs to build their digital capabilities. 

Then there is the investment in delivering superfast broadband, including £10m to extend broadband to rural areas, and the Connection Vouchers scheme which helps SMEs to upgrade existing internet connections. Yiu says this investment in access has been important, but without investment in the population’s digital capability we won’t see the full benefits of that spending. “If you compare the amount of money sunk into superfast broadband [with spend on inclusion] there is quite a discrepancy,” he says, and “it’s about time now for government to pivot and put much more resource into digital inclusion.”

Earlier this year, the Tinder Foundation published research estimating that it would cost £875m to equip every adult in the UK with basic online skills. This would cover just the cost of training and support, not equipment and connectivity, and the foundation suggested the cost would need to be split equally between government, private and third sectors. “It basically boils down to £50m a year from government for the next six years,” says Milner. “That isn’t [currently] being invested.”

Sweetman argues that it is up to those with an interest in digital inclusion to be “creative about how we access the funding and where we see funding coming from”: they should, for example, argue for the integration of digital inclusion work into other services. He refers to government’s ambitions on digital services, and the importance of building digital capability to drive take-up and achieve savings. If you can make the argument that digital capability improves other services or contributes to cost reduction targets, he says, “you have access to funding, but also the senior buy-in” which will drive success.

What’s the incentive?
The key to reducing digital exclusion, says Sweetman, will be to approach the question from the user’s perspective: government and partner organisations need to think about the “everyday incentives for people to get online” and ask “where do they start that journey?” It’s important that answers to the second question are built around offline resources and support, he adds. So the success of pushing wider digital inclusion will in part be about how good suppliers of digital services are at communicating the benefits of these services through non-digital channels. 

Here, he thinks the “government is doing far more than it gives itself credit for: putting services online and therefore making them [better].” So government’s work at redesigning services to make them digital will be an important part of incentivising people to go online. There’s another piece of work required, though, to understand the incentives and support required by different groups. 

Government can cater to these particular audiences by segmenting the users of its services, and considering the needs of each group. The strategy says departments designing online services should consider users’ existing capabilities; the skills they’ll need in the future to use the new services; and how the department will help them build those skills. But Yiu believes that to target its digital inclusion work effectively, government will largely need to step back and support other partners. “If you think about the people we want to reach,” he says, “often they are older, have long-term health needs, are out of work or living in poverty. The way that you get them motivated is not to march in and say: ‘Time to go on the internet!’, but to understand each person’s and community’s needs and circumstances.” This “case by case, decentralised approach is not the forté of a Whitehall department,” he says. 

Sweetman believes that community groups are often the best way to communicate with those who don’t have online skills, providing an offline network with “the contacts and on-the-ground expertise that central government shouldn’t be expected to have.” He advises that if government is to work most effectively with this kind of group, it needs to consider the barriers – such as procurement processes – which currently make it hard for small groups to work directly with government. It should, he says, create “space” for these organisations through, for example, innovative funding models that bypass lengthy procurements.

Milner warns civil servants against stepping back too much, however, saying that government needs to do more, not less, if the UK really wants to reduce digital exclusion. “I think everybody [in the public, private and voluntary sectors] can do more,” she says. “We really need everybody to be more ambitious, and that includes government.” Getting the remaining digitally excluded people online is likely to get more challenging as inclusion work proceeds, she says, leaving a core of people who are very hard to reach – for example, those with very low literacy skills and people who strongly resist using the internet. “There are now people who are refusing to go online,” she says, “and I don’t think we know enough about them.” She cites an example of a housing association which offered free broadband, computing devices and training to all tenants; some refused. “We need more research on what is leading them to reject” the internet, she says. “This comes back to how close to 100% [inclusion] we can get.”

She concludes, however, that the challenge is worth the effort. There is a moral argument, she suggests – excluding people from the benefits which most of us experience everyday through online services is “an equality issue” – but also a pragmatic one for civil servants. 

If you look at what the different political parties say about digital inclusion, she says, it’s clear that “all parties are interested in this, to different degrees”. Indeed Labour’s digital government spokesperson Chi Onwurah seems to agree with Milner that government must be more ambitious about digital inclusion. She tells CSW that the government’s strategy is both “too little, as it chooses to leave behind 10% of the adult population rather than developing technology that supports the needs of the citizen”, and “too late, as it does not go far enough to include citizens who have been excluded from public services” by the decision to start digitising services before putting a proper digital inclusion strategy in place. So this issue is likely to remain on the agenda whoever comes to power next May – just one more reason why civil servants should care about digital inclusion. 

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