The UK’s digital skills base is at last becoming a political priority.
Government and opposition politicians lined up to support the launch of the Go On UK digital skills alliance – Martha Lane Fox’s latest initiative to help the 16 million citizens who lack basic online skills or the confidence to use the internet.
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The alliance is a not-for-profit successor to Race Online 2012, a previous government initiative led by Lane Fox that has now evolved into Go On UK, which is backed by major organisations such as the BBC, E.ON, EE, Lloyds Bank, Post Office and TalkTalk, and funded by £15m from the Big Lottery Fund.
Lane Fox (pictured), who is chair of Go On UK as well as the government’s digital champion, said the plan is about long-term confidence-building, not just one-off training and awareness.
Go On UK aims to bridge the growing digital divide by helping people and small businesses to build their digital skills. Currently, 60% of small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) do not sell their products online.
Improving digital infrastructure and skills
Speaking at the launch, government chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander committed the government to “making sure nobody is left behind” by the growth of the internet.
Alexander – chancellor George Osborne’s second-in-command in Her Majesty's Treasury – said that creating better digital infrastructure and improving digital skills is hugely important to the economy.
Those on lower incomes often have the most to gain from the internet
Danny Alexander, HM Treasury
He cited the digital by default plan to put public services online, and said that it becomes increasingly important that certain sections of society are not excluded by default as a result. While 17% of all UK citizens are not online, in low-income groups the figure rises to 26%.
“Those on lower incomes often have the most to gain from the internet,” said Alexander.
Skills minister Matthew Hancock said public funds are available to help with training for digital skills, but those who would benefit most need the most help to access that support.
“Unless people and businesses come forward, it is not going to happen,” he said.
Last week, Labour said it would invest £75m in a new digital skills programme if re-elected.
Getting UK citizens online
Also speaking at the launch event, Chi Onwurah, Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister with responsibility for cyber security, highlighted the digital divide in her Newcastle constituency – the north-east of England will be one of the early target areas for Go On UK’s programme of skills delivery.
A pilot project in Liverpool last year used £100,000 of funding from the Big Lottery Fund and reduced the number of people offline in the city by 55% in 18 months.
Alexander was also keen to stress that building digital skills is “not just a role for government”, and welcomed the active involvement of the companies backing Go On UK.
We see it as a key task to help citizens build digital skills
Olaf Swantee, EE
Olaf Swantee, CEO of mobile operator EE, said: “We see it as a key task to help citizens build digital skills.”
EE has committed to help one million people get online by 2015, and is recruiting 300 of its employees to be digital champions, receiving training to help build digital skills in local communities and reach out to elderly people through EE’s high street stores.
He said it is vital to engage organisations such as charities and small businesses to help spread online skills across the country.
“Most of those transactions are not delivered in London. The need in the next two years is to get more digital skills [in the regions],” he said.