Investment on internet infrastructure needs to be complemented by skills investment, according to Go ON UK’s deputy CEO, Tristan Wilkinson.
“There’s no money behind the skills agenda,” Wilkinson told delegates at Gov Today’s Digital Britain conference in London today.
In the UK, it is estimated that 11 million people are struggling to connect to the internet, causing a digital divide across the country. The divide is not simply down to problems with hardware, bad connectivity or even rural broadband challenges, but because people either don’t know how or are too poor to get online.
While the government is investing nearly £2bn in upgrading the UK’s superfast broadband, there is no investment in teaching people to use it.
“It’s like building a motorway network without having a budget to teach people how to drive,” said Wilkinson. “We need to complement infrastructure investment with skills investment.”
The government has launched a Digital Inclusion Strategy to reduce the number of UK people who are not online by 25%. It is urging businesses to expand their role in tacking digital exclusion, and has signed a charter with 40 partners, including the BBC, Asda, Google, Microsoft, The Post Office, Vodafone and EE, but no investment has been put aside as yet.
Digital public services out of reach for some UK citizens
The government is encouraging departments and local councils to follow its "digital by default" agenda, where it offers digital where possible for public services. The Government Digital Service (GDS) is leading this campaign and is currently 18 months into a two-year plan to digitise the most used public transactions based on volume.
More on UK government's digital by default strategy
The government has calculated that, on average, an online service is 20 times cheaper than a phone transaction, 30 times cheaper than offering the service by post and 50 times cheaper than face to face contact.
But Wilkinson said another area that concerns him is when government departments suggest that people without internet access visit their local library to use these digitised public services.
A lot of libraries have 10-year-old desktops, are staffed by volunteers without digital skills or are under so much demand they have to limit users to 30-minute sessions. If libraries are not up to scratch themselves, it's not realistic to point non-digital-savvy citizens to the local library, he said.
Basic online skills and social interaction
Wilkinson also said that getting any sort of job today will most likely require a level of digital skills. While you used to be able to go into a shop on your local high street and ask for a job, people are now redirected to company websites.
Additionally, 74% of over 75s prefer to bank in person, compared with 42% of all adults. Wilkinson said this isn’t necessarily because they don’t like using technology, but it could be that visiting the bank or the shops is the only human interaction some elderly people may have, and that's being take away from them.
“We need to make sure those concerns are addressed,” he said.
One of the basic online skills citizens should be able to do is to send and receive email, but Wilkinson said this needs updating to include social media.
“My 15-year-old son and daughter will probably never use email,” he said. “They use social platforms to communicate. When they do go into their Gmail, it’s full of spam.”