Gap analysis: how to solve the UK’s digital exclusion problem

In their rush to digitalise, public sector organisations must remember that millions of vulnerable citizens remain ill-equipped to go online and access services that could help them the most
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Every morning, a team of volunteers boards a converted double-decker bus to roam Gloucestershire offering free IT support and training to digitally disadvantaged people around the county. In a typical session, the trainers might show someone seeking council housing how to submit an online application or help an elderly person who’s struggling with their first smartphone to set up the NHS App. 

“It’s easy to assume that everyone is online and has the digital skills to use public services,” says Lucy ­Pollock, general manager of the DigiBus service. “That’s not the case.”

Research published by Ofcom last year indicated that 6% of British households did not have internet access at home, for instance. Over-75s, unsurprisingly, remain at most risk of digital exclusion. A study by Age UK in 2021 estimated that 2 million people in this age group were offline – and that only 15% of them had any interest in remedying that state of affairs. Other disadvantaged groups include single-person households, unemployed people and those with disabilities such as visual impairments.

The Good Things Foundation is a charity that’s spearheading the effort to build the UK’s first national device bank. It supplies laptops, tablets and phones reconditioned from e-waste programmes, along with prepaid SIM cards that have been donated by mobile networks, to thousands of community groups around the country. 

Ensuring that everyone has the kit to get online is one thing, but digital exclusion often results from a lack of basic IT skills, notes Natasha Bright-Wray, the foundation’s associate director of communications, campaigns and advocacy. 

“Without real investment in skills, nothing will change,” she argues. “That’s why we’re also trying to develop a national minimum digital standard of living. This identifies what support is needed to give ­people enough knowledge to be included in digital services.” 

The Welsh government is already in the process of adopting the standard, Bright-Wray adds.

Services such as the DigiBus provide vital support to local communities. While users can borrow devices from it to get online, the most important element of the project is that it gives people IT skills and the confidence to apply them, Pollock stresses. 

“We have a large population of people who grew up in a non-digital world,” she says. “We’re often engaging with people who don’t think that anyone can help them.” 

The problem doesn’t always lie with the users of public services, adds Pollock, who explains that too many providers aren’t designing and delivering digital facilities with enough consideration for the needs of vulnerable citizens. 

“Most apps are not developed with the involvement of people with lived experience of these barriers to access,” she says. “If you look at the hoops that people have to jump through to access key services, you can see why vulnerable users get stuck and just give up.” 

If a local authority requires prospective applicants to register online before they can use a given facility, that can be a huge problem, especially if that facility – a mental health service, say – is aimed at helping vulnerable people.

It’s easy to assume that everyone is online and has the digital skills to use public services. That’s not the case

“If you’re someone who doesn’t know how to use email or scan and upload ID documents, you’re locked out of the service completely,” Bright-Wray says. 

The adult social care team at Kent County Council recently completed a three-year project to detect ­barriers to digital inclusion and develop a new suite of online services with these in mind. Having identified “lack of support” as a key barrier, it trained a group of volunteers who could provide such assistance in the community. 

The team also invited residents and service users to give their input at the design stage, notes Georgina Walton, senior project manager for adult social care at the council.

“The idea of co-production is important,” she says. “I could have a whole set of ideas for a service, but I’m not someone who’ll be using it. We’re developing all these digital services, but they’re going to fail if the people they’re supposed to help can’t access them and don’t get the support they need.” 

Since the end of the project, the council has launched a range of facilities designed with inclusivity in mind, such as a talking therapy service that uses smart speakers. 

“That service has been built for people who struggle with anxiety and are still at the stage where they need support that doesn’t require them to leave their homes,” Walton explains. “This is about building innovative services that meet people where they are.” 

If you look at the hoops that people have to jump through to access important services, you can see why vulnerable users get stuck

At Newham London Borough Council, there’s a similar desire to involve the whole community in its digital transformation. Newham Sparks is an ambitious programme that aims to build specialist data skills, attract private investment and create more employment opportunities in one of the capital’s poorest boroughs.

As part of this project, the council is developing partnerships with tech companies and working with local schools and colleges. One of the key ambitions is to bring more than 5,500 jobs into Newham, says Amit Shanker, its deputy CEO and chief digital officer. 

While Newham Sparks is designed to equip young people with the latest digital skills, the council also wants to ensure that borough residents who are less IT-savvy also benefit. For instance, the old town hall building will be redeveloped into a high-tech “data campus” with a digital café on the ground floor. Here, any member of the community will be able to get online and obtain free help to access the council’s 700-plus digital services. 

“We will be providing access to hardware and an infrastructure of high-speed connectivity, so that people can simply walk in off the street and access those facilities,” Shanker says. But he adds that it’s important for any public sector body to accept that there will always be a significant minority of people who are unwilling and/or unable to go online in order to access their services. 

Shanker lives in a different borough, where parking meters no longer have coin slots. Residents are required to use an app to pay for parking spaces. 

“I don’t think that’s fair,” he says. “You can’t expect everyone to make that transition. Are we really saying that residents of a certain age, who aren’t digitally literate or who don’t have easy online access, are no longer supposed to drive? To put it frankly, that’s just not acceptable.” 

What is digital exclusion?

According to Ofcom, someone can be classed as digitally excluded when they have problems using online services for at least one of the following reasons: a lack of access (no home internet connection); a lack of ability (poor IT skills and low confidence in using services); and a lack of affordability (the inability to pay for the requisite hardware and/or network access). 

Exclusion is most likely to be a problem for older citizens, with a quarter of elderly people lacking online access at home. A study published by Age UK has estimated that 42% of people aged 75 or over in this country don’t use the internet.

Ofcom’s 2022 research suggests that one in every 20 British households don’t have home internet access. In October 2021, about two million households were thinking about downgrading or cancelling their home connections as a money-saving measure.