The Digitally Excluded
Why ten per cent of people may remain offline forever
The UK government’s Digital Inclusion Strategy aims to get every capable person online by 2020. However, its own figures suggest that up to ten per cent of the population will always remain marginalised. Why is this, and what can strategists do to help? Chris Middleton reports.
It’s easy to assume that the number of people who don’t use the internet must be in a single-digit minority, given the mass uptake of social networks and the apparent ubiquity of laptops, smartphones, and tablets. However, the truth is that over 11 million people in the UK (21 per cent of the population) currently lack the “basic digital capabilities” – either in terms of education, skills, confidence, infrastructure, or content accessibility – to go online, according to 2014 research published by the government.
The research also found that one-third of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) do not have a website. When voluntary, community and social enterprises (VCSEs) are included, that figure rises to half of the UK’s smaller organisations.
In response to these findings, the Cabinet Office published a Digital Inclusion Strategy, which aims to have everyone who “can be digitally capable” in the UK using the internet by 2020. More, the government aims to “develop digital services that are so straightforward and convenient that all those who can use them will choose to do so”, says the document.
The trouble is, the strategy leaves up to ten per cent of the UK population out in the cold. Let’s explore why.
The statistical challenge
While the number of people who have never been online out of choice is decreasing by three per cent every year, the government believes that the number of people who lack the basic capability to use and benefit from online services is falling at a much slower rate: by about one per cent of the adult population every year, suggesting that full digital uptake is more than 20 years in the future.
But while the numbers of people offline are certainly falling, they will never reach zero.
At current rates, the number of people in the UK who lack “basic digital capability” will fall organically to 9.9 million (19 per cent of the population) by 2016 – a respectable figure, but significantly behind the US, where 15 per cent of the adult population is offline, according to 2013 figures published by US demographic analysts the Pew Research Center.
To improve the UK’s figures, the government aims to accelerate the process of digital inclusion, so that only 8.3 million people (16 per cent of the adult population) will be offline by 2016, and 4.7 million people (less than ten per cent of the adult population) will be offline by 2020. At that point, the government says it will have extended digital inclusion as far as it is possible to.
Implicit in the strategy is a troubling fact: the government believes that just under ten per cent of the population will remain offline forever.
This means that after 2020, the UK will face another challenge: what to do about what the Strategist calls the ‘long-term excluded’, a complex and disparate group of citizens who will, together, still make up nearly one in ten of the population. That one in ten will be not only be more difficult to reach with services, but also much more expensive for public, private and third-sector organisations to serve than their counterparts online.
And explicit in the document is another startling fact: 62 per cent of the current offline population – nearly seven million people – say they have no interest in participating in the digital economy at all. So what’s the story behind these figures?
Why people are excluded
There are a number of reasons why digital exclusion happens. These include insufficient skills, illiteracy, poverty, poor local infrastructures, lack of motivation, lack of trust, and poor accessibility – for example, to services for people who are dependent on assistive technology. As a result, the report accepts that most of the adults who are still offline by 2020 will remain digitally excluded, in most cases by circumstance.
Others may choose to opt out – a trend that should not be underestimated. In 2013, the Pew Research Center found that nearly five per cent of all American adults (over 12 million people) believe that the internet is of no interest or value to them, while 14 per cent of the adults who are offline (1.7 million people) have used the internet in the past but have since decided to abandon it completely.
In the UK, the situation is no different. For example, the government’s Digital Inclusion Report finds that one-quarter of all voluntary, community and social enterprises feel that the internet has no relevance to them. They have no understanding of what they might use it for.
But for most organisations, the digital economy is core to their plans and many – banks, building societies, local government services, and retailers among them – are rethinking their bricks and mortar presences. So as organisations of every size and type seek to cut internal costs and minimise their physical premises, reaching out to the sizeable minority of citizens that has been digitally excluded will become more difficult, particularly in isolated communities or in areas of intractable poverty.
At the same time, the rise of the millennial or digital native generation (people born since the advent of the internet) may exacerbate that exclusion, as technology and working habits become more mobile, flexible and collaborative for the many – a generation that regards email as old-fashioned – but not for the few.
All of this poses a long-term strategic challenge to the government, whose Digital by Default policy aims to digitise all of its services and push citizens towards online interactions with the state. Anyone who is offline – for whatever reason – inevitably faces both reduced access to essential services and higher personal costs, exacerbating problems for anyone who is trapped in long-term poverty, or who has serious disabilities, suffers from debilitating illness, or is dealing with other forms of social and economic exclusion.
The price of exclusion
It stands to reason that this offline minority will be much more expensive to take care of than their online counterparts in general terms. For example, the government’s recent Digital Efficiency Report showed that the cost of digital transactions is almost 20 times lower than using voice telephony and 50 times lower than face-to-face interaction.
So, while 90 per cent or more of the adult population may be online by 2020, the remaining ten per cent will become much more expensive to communicate with. At the same time, most will find themselves marginalised and excluded from a broad range of vital services, together with the benefits that accrue from using them – such as access to information, increased social contact, greater opportunities, reduced costs, and increased diversity.
The Universal Credit system – whose troubled, over-budget IT programme reveals that digitising public services is no walk in the park – is being pushed by the government as part of the solution in the medium term. Yet for 2020′s one in ten people, it will become part of the problem, because many of them will, according to the government’s own research, be unable to access its services online, including the payment of housing and disability benefits.
Coincidentally, in October 2014 the government admitted that Universal Credit may not be fully live until 2020, and there is mounting evidence that it may be unworkable.
In the private sector, the trend towards online transactions is even stronger than in government. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) forecasts that UK consumers will spend £107 billion online.
So what does the government propose to do about the challenge of digital exclusion?
A ten-step programme
The Digital Inclusion Strategy sets out ten steps that the government and its public, private and third-sector partners is committed to take to tackle the problem. The government says it will:
• Make digital inclusion part of wider government policy, programmes and digital services;
• Establish a cross-government digital capability programme;
• Give all civil servants the digital capabilities to use and improve government services;
• Agree a common definition of digital skills and capabilities;
• Boost digital skills charity Go ON UK’s partnership programmes across the country;
• Improve and extend partnership working (via Go ON UK);
• Create a shared language for digital inclusion (via Go ON UK);
• Coalesce digital capability support around a single portal at www.digitalskills.com, (via Go ON UK);
• Deliver a digital inclusion programme to support SMEs and VCSEs;
• Use data to measure performance and improve what the government does.
Go ON UK is the UK’s digital skills alliance, which aims to inspire and support people and organisations that want to help others to build digital capabilities. It brings together expertise from multiple sectors to work on local problems, rather than providing services itself.
The ten-point plan only covers the government’s planned measures in the run-up to 2020. There is little mention of what will become of the long-term excluded after that, beyond encouraging a range of public, private and third-sector partners to step in and help.
While areas such as poverty, poor education and a lack of skills can never be fixed by a Digital Inclusion Strategy alone, the issue of trust – another contributor to digital exclusion – has greater resonance for the scheme, particularly in light of the Pew Research Center findings that 1.7 million US citizens have, in effect, ‘quit the internet’ in recent years.
In its own executive summary, the Cabinet Office suggests that, in the UK, offline citizens’ lack of trust in the internet is associated with fears about not knowing where to start or where to look for help. However, buried in the report itself is an interesting statistic: well over one-third (36 per cent) of the UK’s offline population – nearly four million people in total – are seriously concerned about internet privacy and this is dissuading them from going online.
The Snowden angle
Those fears are increasingly shared by the online population too. In the wake of the Snowden leaks about large-scale state surveillance, and in light of the constant drip-feed of stories about data breaches, the Heartbleed bug, banking system failures, identity theft, and so on, it would seem that the government has much to do to restore public confidence in the internet.
Recent hacks on a range of services, including eBay, iCloud, LinkedIn, Adobe and America’s largest bank, JP Morgan – all organisations that should have the strongest security regimes – can only have reinforced the doubters’ fears about the risks to their private data.
The government accepts that, for the offline minority, the challenges of going online remain complex. “Too often people overcome one barrier and then face another that stops them using the internet,” says the report. “For example, they might get access to the internet, but due to past experiences such as viruses or spam, might not trust and therefore not use the internet in a way that helps them from day to day.”
The government accepts that it cannot overcome all of these challenges alone. “For some [of those challenges], like infrastructure, we know what needs to happen to help people go online, and we are doing it through the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s broadband delivery programme [which aims to ensure that 95 per cent of all UK premises have access to super-fast broadband by 2017]. However, the softer issues like skills, motivation and trust are more complex and need more than government help to overcome them.”
What you can do
The government says that private sector organisations should support the Digital Inclusion Strategy through their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes, raising awareness of the benefits of going online, offering lower-cost services and/or free products and providing support for individuals and organisations in building their trust, motivation and skills.
Public and third-sector organisations have a major role to play too. Digital inclusion charities such as Citizens Online and the social enterprise Tinder Foundation already provide frontline support to individuals who wish to gain digital skills. Tinder Foundation supports a network of over 5,000 UK Online Centres, based in libraries, community centres and social housing.
Other VCSE organisations including housing associations, trade unions and cause-specific charities, such as Age UK, provide tailored access, support and training for digitally excluded people. Similarly, organisations such as the BBC, Ofcom, the Technology Trust, Digital Unite and the Local Government Association all have a “huge role to play in understanding, sharing and growing support for digital inclusion”, says the report. TS
• Businesses and organisations can help the government work towards digital inclusion by signing up to the Digital Inclusion Charter HERE.
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