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The Digital Divide – Are these missed opportunities?

20th Sep, 2021

Have you ever considered what our lives would be like without online access and devices – something that has become such a normal part of our lives in our work, our homes and education? 

From connecting friends and colleagues to ordering groceries, where would you be without that easy access? It gives us independence and choice, which many people view as a right rather than a privilege.  

What is alarming but not surprising is that there are many people in the UK who are still not able or willing to access the internet, and this presents a significant socioeconomic effect that needs to be addressed. A recent ONS (Office for National Statistics) report revealed that not all lives have been revolutionised by the internet and more recently Internet of Things. In fact, for the 6.3% of the UK adult population who has never used the internet and the 21% who do not regularly use it, this new digital era has made their lives more difficult. This marginalised group, which includes some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in the UK, is in danger of being disenfranchised and could become a greater burden on social and health services in the future if this issue isn’t addressed now. 

Therefore, as the internet increasingly becomes the default communication medium, a vital opportunity cost must be realised: the minority will be digitally excluded and become progressively disadvantaged in society, both in relative and absolute terms. This doesn’t only deteriorate their quality of life, increase the social divide, and increase inefficiencies, there is also a significant financial loss; as a society we are missing out on an additional £63 billion of revenue in the UK economy (ONS).  

Although there is work going on to tackle this across some sectors, all sectors must now come together and scale up efforts. No single organisation, provider or citizen can tackle this alone, and so we all need to play our role in minimising and eventually eliminating digital exclusion across the country.   

What is digital exclusion (DE)?

The definition of digital exclusion has changed over the years, evolving from a simple ‘user / non-user’, to explore different levels of internet use and skills divisions. A broad definition of digital exclusion is sections of the population that have continuous unequal access and capacity to use the digital tools that are - or are becoming - essential to fully participate in society. Developers of digital tools must consider all groups in the design of their services, ensuring they provide choice. Otherwise, they will automatically exclude swathes of people. This problem is particularly acute with vulnerable groups;  

  • 20% households with one adult aged 65 years and over have no internet connection.
  • 24% adults do not or cannot use online banking and the advantages this offers.
  • 10% fewer Equality Act disabled people have smart phones than the population average and they are 10% less likely to order goods and services online.

These problems are particularly acute within lower income groups, citizens whose first language is not English, ones that lack formal ID, prisoners and prison-leavers and people in abusive relationships or families.  

Why are individuals digitally excluded?

Every individual is unique, and therefore, the reason why they are digitally excluded is also unique. However, some of the most common barriers to digital inclusion include a combination of the following:  

  • Access and connectivity – many do not have the ability to connect to the internet and go online through broadband, Wi-Fi or mobile, either because they lack the right infrastructure and / or the ability to pay for a device and / or required broadband / data.     
  • Skills - not everyone has the skills to use the internet and online services. This can be particularly problematic for older people and those who do not understand the language in which the service is provided.  
  • Confidence - some people fear online crime, lack trust in online activities, only feel confident doing a few specific tasks or don’t know where to start with online services.   
  • Motivation – the relevance and value of using the internet is not as clear for everyone. Some are driven away from using it by worries and concerns, others actively choose not to use it.  
  • Design - not all digital services and products are accessible and easy to use. Sometimes they are a lot harder to use than a paper alternative or just picking up the phone.   
  • Reliance – some citizens depend, by choice or circumstance, on others to do digital tasks for them.   
  • Awareness - not everyone is aware of digital services and products available to them.   
  • Staff capability and capacity for support - not all government, health and care staff have the skills, and knowledge and allocated availability to recommend appropriate digital support.  

How does digital exclusion impact us? 

Digital exclusion can impact us on three levels: on an individual, organisation and population level. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified this impact and we now rely more heavily on the internet to access services and connect with our friends and family, than ever before.   

Individual and population – Individuals are missing out on learning and career opportunities, healthcare services, and on connecting with friends and family, while also taking an educational and financial hit.  

Career opportunities – research has proven that digital exclusion creates additional career barriers for people already experiencing poverty, for example, putting together a CV and applying for jobs, are just some of the essential activities that are harder for the digitally excluded.  

Physical and mental health – individuals may be more exposed to negative health impacts, as vulnerable groups such as the elderly are at higher risk of serious illness from Covid-19, are also more likely to be digitally excluded, and therefore can not benefit from valuable alerts through services such as Track and Trace. Additionally, internet access has been a mental-health booster for many during the pandemic – not just for communicating with friends and family, but also because many social and welfare activities, such as gym classes and pub quizzes, have taken place online.    

Education – School closures and absences during COVID-19 have necessitated home-schooling and online distance learning. Disadvantaged children are unable or not made aware of ways to access the same online learning resources as children whose parents have access to IT tools and connectivity and this gap is surely only set to grow further. The UK Government distributed laptops to support disadvantaged pupils to work from home during the pandemic.

Finances – Many people are unable to use online banking and digital payment methods. Digital exclusion might exacerbate financial exclusion, which impairs ability to make and receive cost-effective ways of payment. Digital exclusion also means a need to access services in person and on paper, something which might come with additional service fees.   

How could digital exclusion impact your organisation?

If digital inclusion isn’t built into your change programme, you may make services significantly worse for some users and cause them to miss out on opportunities and financial benefits  

Negative outcome for some end users – most solutions include some sort of digital transformation in one way or another. Although this improves the lives of many users, you could actually be making access to services significantly harder for digitally excluded groups.   

Not maximising financial benefits – if you don’t enable all of your users to access your solutions you miss out on large sections of your target market, meaning, you are not likely achieving the savings or impact of the transformation you set out to achieve.  

How can you ensure your programmes are digitally inclusive?

1. Raise internal awareness   

Inclusion needs to be part of an organisation’s culture, in its everyday ways of working and in the ways they carry out their projects. Companies need to help their employees across all hierarchies and sectors to understand the problem, the importance and impact of digital exclusion e.g. through workshops, leadership papers and awareness campaigns. Bringing your workforce on the journey and helping them understand the benefits of inclusion will go a substantial way towards an Inclusion by design culture. 

2. Understand all users’ needs and build services and solutions that meet them

Understanding the needs of your users is vital to the design of your projects and solutions, and these needs should represent all of your potential target users. This is ideally achieved through pre-project research but can also involve including digitally excluded users in testing throughout your solutions/ projects/ programmes. This enables feedback, iteration and continuous improvement based on evidence. Digital may not always be the right answer and your solution should embrace different channels (phone and post included) to provide the level of choice needed to ensure nobody is excluded.

3. Operationalise solutions and deliver message to clients 

Digital Exclusion isn’t always an easy sell to your clients as it can be seen as an unnecessary additional expense. To make your point you can use a social and business lens – the purpose and impact of minimising digital exclusion for your clients and end users.  

4. Reflect on outcomes and reiterate process

No process is perfect from the off. Firms should continuously reflect on their processes and solutions to refine and achieve best possible outcomes for clients and end users. Reach out to organisations and public services who have done this before, particularly companies delivering services for UK Central Government where consideration of inclusion is mandatory, not optional, even if the past year has blurred lines and pushed limits.  

What can you do?

We must all play a part to make sure the web is truly for everyone, and therefore, we need to provide more than just access. Giving people a choice will help tackle wider social issues, support economic growth and close equality gaps. By changing ourselves and our firms first, we will be a step closer to equipping the UK with the skills, motivation and trust to go online, be digitally capable and to deliver digitally inclusive solutions. 

Authors

Fereshta Qayumi

Senior Health Care Consultant

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Cecilia Maclaren

Head of Public Sector Solutions

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