While the last two years have brought significant changes in how individuals and businesses use technology, these major development leaps have also affected local government organisations with an impact which goes beyond their own walls.
Services across the spectrum of local government provision have been increasingly digitised which, while benefiting many, has increased the significance of the digital divide in our communities.
Around a fifth of UK adults lack the basic foundational skills needed for our digital world
This finding from Ipsos MORI and Lloyds Bank, in their survey of Essential Digital Skills UK 2021, is expanded to tell us “6% of the adult population are considered digitally excluded and are unable to do any of these [foundation level] tasks by themselves.” While the survey goes on to say that these numbers are decreasing, the greater reliance on digitisation within basic government services means there is a real risk of the most vulnerable in our societies missing out on the support they need.
What is the Reality of Digital Poverty?
It has long been thought that digital exclusion has focused mainly on the older members of society and - while over 75’s are more likely to be in the group who are unable to manage any of the foundation level tasks specified as essential digital skills - the problem extends much further than that.
This is corroborated by the Lloyds Bank Consumer Digital Index who have reported that one-in-ten (10%) of those offline are under 50 years old. The report also states that over one-third of UK benefit claimants have Very Low digital engagement, suggesting that millions of people across the UK would struggle engaging with online services required to access support.
Cost is also a factor with the report identifying 55% of those who are offline earn under £20,000. Those who have an impairment are another group less likely to be accessing technology. While there has been a rise in those with impairments engaging with technology, assistive tech has not seen a similar rise, this assistive technology has had a low take-up rate among those with Low digital capability. While there has been an increase in technology to support those with impairment then, it is not currently being utilised by those who could really benefit.
So, what are the barriers stopping individuals from participating online? The research shows a number of hurdles including concerns about security, lack of interest, lack of confidence, affordability, and physical abilities or impairments.
Government Services for All
The fundamental concern here is that local government services which should be available to all may be withheld from those who need them most through the move towards digital only access.
While many service users will have benefited from easier access through digital means (e.g. digital payments rather than visiting physical offices), the risks of excluding those who are already without support are real.
The next step, therefore, is to ensure those changes already put in place don’t inadvertently increase the problems felt by those digitally excluded. How can these barriers be overcome?
Some of the most-voiced obstacles were individual perception.
Concerns about security, clarity of benefits, and reassurance around security concerns can be addressed through communication and education - services which local governments are well placed to provide through schools, libraries and colleges.
When we consider affordability, assistive technology and education, the next concern is availability or access. This, again, is something local governments can support within their communities.
With access to inexpensive, easy-to-use technology, these organisations can create environments for learning - or guidance through specific tasks - enabling those identified as digitally excluded.
There is also the possibility of providing loan devices to individuals and families in need, with public access devices giving access to required services; the whole process being as accessible as borrowing a book from the library. These services would allow devices to be available to multiple users with suitable security built in - all having antivirus software and restrictions on inappropriate content. Built with standard websites auto-launched and accessibility features enabled, these devices would be simple to use.
Technology suppliers would provide reassurance to the local authorities managing such services ensuring the repair or replacement of any devices damaged or found faulty, while lost or stolen devices can be remotely locked and factory reset.
Not only would these services help to bridge the digital divide, but also improve goodwill between local authorities and the people they serve.
Bridging the gap
With increased digitisation there is a need to ensure the most vulnerable in society are not excluded. While there is a responsibility on the public sector to provide services, the need to ensure the solution is right and available to all is just as important.
About the Author
I'm Terry Chana. I am an innovation strategist that connects customer, employee and brand experiences. My passion lies in building ecosystems to solve business problems by combining creativity and technology.