TechUK panel aims to open doors to the digitally excluded

A techUK panel heard industry experts share their plan for getting the 10.5 million people currently offline digitally skilled by 2020

Digital industry experts aim to “open the doors” to the 10.5 million digitally excluded UK citizens, after techUK gathered a panel to share their plans.

Charlotte Holloway, head of policy at techUK, chaired the session and said the aim is to “open the doors” to those who are currently digitally excluded and to get the government to look at fully funding a digital inclusion strategy. "There are huge rewards to be reaped in both the public and private sectors,” said Holloway.

She said it is important for the government to take note if the UK is to be “a leading economy and a fully included nation”.

TechUK, the UK's technology trade association, launched its digital manifesto in September 2014 detailing how the next government must turn the UK into a digital leader over the next five years.

The manifesto – Securing our Digital Future: The TechUK Manifesto for growth and jobs 2015-2020 – urges politicians from all parties to recognise the significance of the digital revolution as they produce their own political manifestos over the coming months.

Eleri Pengelly, deputy director of digital inclusion at Government Digital Service (GDS), said her team was set up to deliver “digital for everyone” along with 69 other partners and supporting organisations.

Pengelly said the aim is “full digitalisation of services effectively delivered to the most vulnerable”.

What’s keeping people from going online?

She questioned how we can mitigate the risks that the shift to fully digital services will leave people feeling left out: “As more services are offered digitally, more may feel excluded.”

She said the biggest fear of those who are not online is a fear of government spying, scams or even friends who might have an ulterior motive: “There is an issue of trust. We know the answer to digital inclusion, so if we know the answer, why has it not happened yet? 

"There are lots of pieces to the jigsaw, but there is still a gap there or we wouldn’t still have digital exclusion.”

Pengally posed the question: “So what’s the problem?

"It’s about getting money where it’s needed. Identifying areas and finding solutions for particular problems. Measurement is a problem. What standard do we use? What do we mean by inclusion? It’s important we all adopt the same measurement.”

Pengally highlighted the two problems of evaluation and segmentation: “How do we evaluate what’s happening to these people and how do we follow up with them? 

"What difference is being made or why did they decide to drop offline? Until we know that we can’t know where to invest. In terms of segmentation there are lots of reasons why people drop offline. One solution won’t fit all, but there are commonalities, so it’s finding out what the hook is with these people so we can go to government and other investors and say this is where your money will be spent.”

She noted that 56% of people currently offline are not interested in going online at all: “What do we do with these people? One thing we’re working on is Digital Friends to encourage them to take the next steps. 25% of them had done something to improve their digital skills, but were still not online.”

Rachel Neaman, CEO at Go ON UK, said: “We want everyone to use digital services, but also to benefit from them. The reality is without these skills people cannot fully participate in today’s society.

“There is the assumption that most people offline are old, however nearly half are of working age and that is a problem for us economically.”

Read more about digital inclusion

Online motivation

Neamon said digital is now mainstream and it is something society will have to accept, to solve the problem of digital exclusion: “Even with getting a job – we no longer have the luxury of having digital as something separate by putting it on a pedestal as something nice to have.”

She stressed the problem of getting over trust and access issues to find a person’s motivation: “We have to understand the individual motivation for that person to get them online. When the motivation is not there they are not interested as they cannot see the benefits.”

The government claims digitising public services will make cumulative savings of £1.2bn in this parliament, rising to an estimated £1.7bn a year after 2015.

Neamon said if these barriers are not removed and public services go digital by default, “there will be increased polarisation between the digital haves and have-nots by 2020. These people need support on what needs to be a digital learning journey”.

Helen Milner, CEO at Tinder Foundation, said it is important that those who need it the most “are caught and supported". 

"To do this we need to build a networked effect to build a nervous system with everyone working together.

“For this partnership is key. The silver bullet is people. It’s about people and the benefit on their lives is significant. The divide is getting deeper, so we need to recognise how to get them online on a human level, with human interest, instead of it being about the benefits for the economy.”

Remote areas

Graham Dunn, senior government affairs manager at Vodafone UK, said the company is investing £1bn into its network this year and are working on to ensure more remote rural areas have the necessary infrastructure.

Dunn said Vodafone recently gave 12 rural communities mobile internet for the first time and that it had benefits for local businesses, families learnt to Skype each other in different countries and GPs found it easier to stay in touch with their patients.

As a result he said Vodafone plans to roll the network out to 100 rural communities this year: “To do that we’re having to roll out the infrastructure which the planning committee currently tackles on a case-by-case basis. We need to make a decision as a nation that if we want people online we have to have the infrastructure, for instance, making it easier to access government land.”

He mentioned a report from Vodafone which found that, by using a mobile device instead of a laptop or PC, it breaks down psychological barriers about using technology: “Mobiles are more intuitive and feel unthreatening," said Dunn.

“We need to think mobile when designing government services. We need a network that delivers the internet into the hands of everyone and the government support for that.”

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