Digital skills has an image problem — the launch of future.now

Future.now is a new coalition of companies, public sector organisations, and charities, that is working to empower everyone to thrive in a digital UK. It launched this morning and Good Things Foundation, as one of the six founding partners of the coalition, was there today to play our role.

Future.now is the result of months of work, led by the Lord Mayor of the City of London, Peter Estlin, to make an industry-led attempt to turbo boost the UK’s digital skills. Speeches by the Lord Mayor, and by Phil Smith, the co-chair of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport’s (DCMS) Digital Skills Partnership Board, laid out the challenge to the 300 people at the Mansion House today, calling for the UK to be the most digital skilled nation in 2030, and making it clear that if we want to realise this ambition we’ve got to start now.

The numbers are stark with 11.9 million people lacking essential digital skills — and that’s not just older people, or people looking for work — it’s also about people in jobs as well. Within ten years, 90% of all jobs will require digital skills. One thing that makes future.now stand out is that employers are pledging to support their own staff to gain the digital skills they lack — not just the skills they need for the job they have today, but the skills they need to be included in our digital society, and the skills they’ll need for jobs of the future.

When I visit Online Centres in our hyperlocal network of thousands of community partners up and down the UK, I hear time and time again that the main reason people didn’t get support to learn new internet skills sooner is that they didn’t see digital as being relevant to their lives.

A lack of motivation is one of the biggest reasons we have a digital skills crisis. Technology can be overwhelming, and it can be difficult to see any point in keeping up — let alone know where to start.

Digital skills has an image problem. It’s often represented as being about the advanced end of digital — super geeky hackers, programmers and software developers doing clever things that most of us can’t understand. Very rarely do we hear how we’re benefiting from digital — how we’re now better able to improve our health, manage our money and communicate with friends and family.

We also don’t talk about how thousands of people every week are stepping forward, in local communities and in workplaces, and reaching out for support. We don’t talk about how it’s common to not understand how to do everything you might need to do online for life or for work.

Awareness raising campaigns do exist — our own Get Online Week — starts for 2019 next Monday (14th — 20th October). There are over 1200 events up and down the UK in community centres, libraries, Citizens Advice, housing providers and more — and we hope we’ll engage over 50,000 people during the week. But there are a lot of 50,000s in 11.9 million. Through collaborations like future.now — I hope we will amplify campaigns like Get Online Week to reach not just tens of thousands of people but perhaps millions of people.

We need to change the digital skills image problem, because it’s a significant barrier to people embracing the benefits of digital. And we need more storylines on soap operas like Coronation Street, but this time with a call to action to the local support that people can find in their own communities. Liz Williams tweeted:

That’s why we have launched future.now- to change that image problem, to work with the usual partners and the unusual partners, and to get stuff done. We were pleased to have not one, but two government Ministers — from two Government Departments — speak at the launch this morning. It was great to see the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and Digital Minister Matt Warman, give their “full and total backing” to future.now. It’s fantastic to see so much collaboration across sectors.

It’s easy (or easyish) to have big ambitions and big plans for digital inclusion, but it feels like future.now is a coalition of people who want to dream big AND get things done. Big brands and big employers pledging to support all of their 10,000 employees to gain essential digital skills (City of London Corporation) and much much more.

I love Phil Smith’s tweet from today:

Kudos to the Lord Mayor for having the vision to make this happen, and a shout out to the other founding partners who have all worked hard to get us up to today: BT, Accenture, Lloyds Banking Group, Nominet, and the City of London Corporation.

Now we need to grow this coalition, this movement for change. We need organisations, big and small, to join future.now and pledge to tackle the digital skills crisis. You can help by pledging to: (1) build collective action, (2) build your own capability, and (3) build the capability of others.

Together we are stronger, and with your help future.now will achieve a fairer and more productive UK through boosting the population’s digital skills.

You can pledge here.

The State of the Nation: Australian Digital Inclusion Index 2019

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It’s been just over two years since Good Things Foundation launched in Australia and we went international – and it’s all happened rather fast. If you blinked, you might have missed us building a digital inclusion network of more than 2,500 community organisations, managing a $20 million grant program, and supporting over 250,000 people with our network partners to improve their confidence with digital.

So it was fantastic to see the impact we and lots of others in the sector have had in creating a more digitally inclusive society in yesterday’s Australian Digital Inclusion Index 2019 report. It brought the exciting news that digital inclusion is improving year-on-year. 

First published in 2016, the Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) provides the most comprehensive picture of Australia’s online participation to date. Since data was first collected in 2014, Australia’s overall digital inclusion score has risen by 7.9 points, from 54.0 to 61.9, and improvements have been evident across all three dimensions of digital inclusion – Access, Affordability and Digital Ability. This means digital inclusion is getting better!

However, there’s little to get complacent about: “A number of groups continue to record low digital inclusion scores,” whilst “the gaps between digitally included and excluded Australians are substantial and widening for some groups.”

The report brings to light the different challenges that Australia faces in the mission to achieve Good Things Foundation’s vision of a world where everyone benefits from digital. Although Indigenous digital inclusion is improving, it remains low – this has been the case since the ADII began, and clearly more work is needed to support Indigenous Australians to gain digital equality. Geography also plays a critical role – Australia is such a huge country and the more regional and remote the area you live in, the less digitally included you will be. That’s why our approach of supporting people through hyperlocal, community organisations, our ‘Network Partners”, from all over Australia – from urban, regional, remote and very remote places – is so important and so effective. Partnership is key.

Yet the report also draws attention to the fact that many of the same challenges are experienced across borders. In remarkable chorus with the UK’s Oxford Internet Survey 2019 published last week (you can read my blog post about it here), the digital divide follows clear socio-economic contours. Broadly, Australians with low levels of income, education and employment are significantly less digitally included. 

Just as OxIS found that most non-users in the UK are not interested in going online, the ADII reported that under half of all Australians think computers and technology give them more control over their lives. This suggests a transnational aspect to some of the challenges excluded people face and a focus for Good Things Foundation in both countries. We need to reduce people’s anxieties about the use of digital technologies on a global scale, and raise awareness for people across the world about the benefits of getting themselves online.

We are, of course, delighted at the positive news in the report. We’re equally delighted that over 900 of our fantastic network partners have signed up to participate in Get Online Week this year. But there is always more to be done to reach the 2.5 million people in Australia who are currently not online, and the 4 million people with limited digital skills.

Earlier this year we published a picture of digital inclusion in Australia – our Digital Nation 2019. If you’re interested in finding more stats about the state of the nation and digital inclusion do have a look at it here. Since it uses the 2018 ADII we’ll be updating it in early 2020, so watch this space for more information on that too!

Oxford Internet Survey 2019: A Response

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I was really excited to see that the OXIS Survey is back after a six year break and yesterday, the Oxford Internet Institute released the summary report to the 2019 analysis. The latest report – intriguingly called Perceived Threats to Privacy Online: The Internet in Britain – shows a rapid increase in the use of the internet since its last outing in 2013. Now we have the evidence that there are more and more people streaming music, watching television content and paying their bills online, demonstrating some of the many benefits enjoyed by those who are frequent internet users, and reflecting what many of us see in our day to day lives. 

But the report also reinforces a worrying trend. As those people who are online are increasingly benefiting from the digital world, there is a growing disconnect between users and non-users. The digital divide is widening and the report highlights many of the contributing factors.

Level of income remains a strong indication of internet use. There is still a higher proportion of non-users below the median income (£28,400/year), whilst a whopping 40% of respondents in the lowest income category (less than £12,500/year) are digitally excluded.

Age also continues to play an important role. Whilst almost everyone under the age of 50 uses the internet, after 50 there is a sharp decline in internet use of about 2% per year.

Particularly troubling is that ‘the most notable point about the relation of education and internet use is how little it has changed between 2013 and 2019.’ Just as before, there is a disproportionate percentage of non-users among less-educated groups.

All of this goes to show that it is those people who are most likely to be socially excluded that are digitally excluded too – and so those who have the most to gain from digital are most likely to be left behind. 

The report points to not only a growing digital divide in experience, but also in perceptions of the internet. 72% of non-internet users believe that it threatens privacy, compared to 52% of those who actually use the internet. When asked whether they agree that ‘technology makes things better’, 79% of users agree as opposed to just 29% of non-users. Concerns about keeping safe online is a barrier to many people engaging with the digital world. We know that motivation is one of the huge barriers stopping people getting online, and this report further proves this. It is vital that we show people the benefits of using the internet in order to help them to move forward positively on their digital journey.

What does this all mean? 

It means we are still a long way off achieving the goal set out in our Blueprint for a 100% Digitally Included Nation. A growing digital divide means there are people being left behind, and these people are the most likely to be socially excluded. So we need to act now – to work together as a nation to close the digital divide once and for all.

Our Blueprint sets out the six key actions that we believe need to be taken to close this divide – but we can’t do it alone. We need a commitment of partners from across the sectors to ensure we can be a leading digital nation, and really seize the benefits that digital can provide.

The Digital Inclusion Hustings – five questions for our next Prime Minister

Conservative Party members are, as we speak, deciding who will be the next Prime Minister. And whilst most will have already decided, I know others are still waiting to hear how the two candidates – Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt – respond on some key issues. While Brexit is the topic that is of course getting the most attention, there are many other important issues for our new Prime Minister – and I happen to think that digital inclusion is an important one. So, I’m writing this blog – sending it to both candidates – as I want to put a series of questions to them on how they plan to tackle an issue which could see the UK being left behind as the world becomes increasingly digital. So…

Dear Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt,

I want to ask you both what you would do, if Prime Minister, to address the digital inequalities in the UK. Although Mr Johnson you have committed to deliver better, faster broadband at an accelerated pace, there is also a deep divide between those who have the digital skills and confidence to benefit fully, and those who do not. The latest Ofcom release shows a 17% gap in internet use between adults in high and low socio-economic groups. Of people with zero digital skills, 46% earn less than £17,499 a year, and people with basic digital skills can expect a lifetime increase of their average earnings of 2.8%. 

There are 11.9 million people in the UK who still don’t have essential digital skills; and our research shows that, at current rates of progress, by 2028 there will still be 6.9 million people in the UK – 12% of the population – without these skills. These are the questions we think you need to answer. 

1) At Good Things Foundation, we calculated last year that if everyone in the UK had digital skills, it would offer a net present value of £21.9 billion to the UK economy. Would you commit to a 100% fully digitally included UK and how would you do it? (And, Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt, if you’re stuck for ideas – have a look at our Blueprint for a 100% Digitally Included Nation).

2) How will you support microbusinesses and sole traders who are struggling to reap the benefits of digital? For example, one quarter of micro businesses used none of the seven technologies identified as most relevant, and a similar proportion used only one digital technology. The UK e-commerce survey found that only 8.8% of micro businesses were making website sales compared to 46% of large businesses. The microbusiness owners and sole traders we spoke to in Powering Up: How more people, communities and businesses can participate in a digital economy told us that they face factors like not having the time to learn new skills and the amount it would cost to be suitably trained means that many find it impossible to keep up with bigger, more digitally able firms. 

3) How will your government alleviate the fears of non-internet users to ensure that the internet is a safe place to be, especially when performing financial transactions online and avoiding the harms the internet can present? I have previously discussed avenues of opportunity that the current Online Harms White Paper offers for digital inclusion. One in five non-internet users don’t go online because they don’t trust the internet, or don’t feel it’s online or secure. 

4) How will you support people to get the digital skills they need to get by in the modern economy? People will need to get by at work: we need to talk about how the future of work and automation of jobs will affect people who currently do not possess the basic skills they need at work and to apply for jobs. People will also need to get by in life: a ‘digital first’ approach (which I support) saves Government money and is more convenient for those who can interact with the state online, however more needs to be done to ensure everyone can benefit. Good Things Foundation is offering digital assistance for the 2021 Census and with HMCTS services; yet schemes like Universal Credit has a ‘digital first’ approach and offers no official government digital assistance. However, many who are eligible for Universal Credit do not have the digital skills to apply online. Our plan will help you to seize the economic and social benefits of a fully digitally included nation.

5) Finally, we found in our above mentioned Powering Up report that we can only really tackle digital exclusion by all sectors; private, public and third sector, working together. How will your government link up people, companies and organisations, to ensure that digital exclusion is tackled? A Good example of schemes of this nature is Power Up, which Good Things Foundation are doing in collaboration with J.P. Morgan and SCVO.

Mr Hunt and Mr Johnson, Please feel free to send your response to helen@goodthingsfoundation.org and we will, of course, publish them immediately!

Healthier citizens: nobody left behind in a digital society

Often when I’m describing our work at Good Things Foundation I talk about us being the glue in the system – acting as the link between national Governments and senior people in big, often global, corporations, and our networks of small, local community based partners. A great example of this is supporting people to use digital, which leads to them being healthier – working with national governments and community organisations to make real change happen. In England, we’re in our seventh year of working in this way, and in Australia this is our first year of thinking and working to blend digital inclusion (or digital literacy) and digital health literacy – building on our successes. And in Wales, we’ve just this week embarked on a new 3 year partnership supporting Wales Co-operative Centre to deliver the Welsh Government’s new programme on boosting people’s digital confidence, health and wellbeing. Exciting times!

Digital and community have been the cornerstones of our approach for over a decade. We believe in a world where everyone benefits from digital, so it’s not surprising this is central to the work we do. Our work spans a continuum from deep reach and impact – building new relationships, and changing systems – through to lighter touch engagement, which involves introducing people to digital health resources as part of their digital skills journey. And all of this is done with our movement of community-based organisations across both the UK and Australia who tailor support based on the needs of the people they’re helping. So it makes sense that community is one of the key ways to overcome the inequality digital can drive in our society. Digital exclusion is exacerbating social exclusion, but it can also drive inclusion too – and that is what we are trying to do, working with our partners both big and global, and, small and local.

In the UK, people who are digitally excluded (eg with no or low digital skills) are more likely to be older and/or experiencing social exclusion. You are three times more likely to be offline if you live on a lower income (‘DE household’) than if you live in a higher income household (Ofcom 2019). So while we deliver support around inclusion and digital literacy, this is done through different lenses – such as employability, financial resilience, and health – so we are not only improving people’s digital skills, but helping them to overcome a range of issues, from loneliness through to mental health issues, poverty and unemployment. We’re stopping people from becoming even more excluded. By leveraging the power of both digital and community, we can help people tackle some of the challenges they face, such as preventing illness and taking charge of their own health.

We’ve learned so much over the years, but two key things I’d like to talk about are how improved digital health literacy can drive better health outcomes, and how relationships between the NHS and those in the community help us to affect change.

Improved digital health literacy drives better health outcomes

Technology is revolutionising the way that healthcare is delivered around the world. Apps are making it easy for us to track our weight, food intake and exercise – as well as to manage long term conditions, or to connect with peers.

There is no doubt that digital technology offers huge opportunities to improve health and healthcare. But we can’t leave anyone behind. Everyone must have the choice to get the support and skills they need to use fast, efficient, well designed, convenient, flexible digital health tools and apps.

Digital health literacy has to be the next step from basic digital literacy. There are 11.9 million people in the UK who do not have all the essential digital skills for life (Lloyds CDI 2019), and an estimated 7 million people in Australia – and this means they’re not able to search for information, fill out a form, or send an email. These people are more likely to be older, poorer and living with disabilities, to be at risk of conditions like type 2 diabetes, depression and anxiety, and so it follows that they’re more likely to need health services and support.

We want people to have digital skills so that they can have better lives. We want people to have basic digital health literacy so they can have better health. And this also means that they’ll have equality of access to great digital tools – the NHS App in England, or My Health Record in Australia.

And improved digital health skills don’t just mean people can use apps to manage their health. With improved digital literacy, through the support of hyperlocal community venues, people feel not just digitally able but empowered too. This leads to people improving their health, like Simon who has lost weight and reduced his blood sugar level by developing his digital confidence after being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. People are able to manage their conditions better online, and to take important steps that will improve their health in the long term.

The large overlap between people who are digitally and socially excluded, and between social exclusion and the drivers of health inequality, means that action on digital literacy can help drive better health outcomes – and, equally significantly, can help to prevent existing health inequalities from widening further.

Local + Scale: Improving people’s health

In England, over the last two years we’ve moved from a hyperlocal focus on people and the community outside the formal NHS, to creating evidence on new ways of enabling some of the most excluded groups in our society to benefit from digital health resources. We’re doing this through supporting 20 innovative pathfinders across England, focussing on a range of audience groups and health conditions.

We supported Nailsea Town Council to bring digital health to the high street, developing a high street digital health hub which connected people with each other and with the digital resources they need to live well. One man living with dementia was able to learn how to use Skype to communicate with his family. As he was able to read visual signs, this was a much more successful way of communicating.

We investigated socially prescribing digital skills in Sheffield and worked with Dr Ollie Hart and the Sloan Medical Centre to answer the question: Can the introduction of digital within social prescribing help people to take more ownership of their health and wellbeing? That’s where Simon – the case study above – was supported, and this ‘social prescribing’ model is persisting beyond the pathfinder and is now spreading further.

And In Hastings, we worked with the Seaview Project and their partners to enable people who are sleeping rough to access the health services and information they need – resulting in a whole range of positive results which will have a preventative impact in the long term, including improving eating habits to help prevent diabetes to learning how to take blood pressure medication correctly.

These Pathfinder projects – as well as our wider work in digital and social inclusion – have taught us some important things. To fully harness the potential of a ‘digital first’ health services for the most socially and digitally excluded people in our society, we need to remove the significant barriers that exist for people in a person-centred, community-based way – using trusted relationships especially between people working in the community (community centre staff or volunteers) and the people working in the formal health service (GPs, health visitors, paramedics, et al).

We are now spreading and scaling this hyperlocal digital health hub model in five more local health and care systems across England: North West London, Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Staffordshire, and Blackburn. We’re doing this so we can stress test what we’ve learned, to see if our model can be replicated and scaled up further.

Just this week we’ve launched a new grant funding round in England to see how far we can continue to scale – funding mini Digital Health Hubs with a focus on building or enhancing those all-important trusted relationships especially between local people and those working in the health service. Building these relationships is so important – I think of these Digital Health Hubs as being the bridge that makes these bonds stronger and lead people to have better health.

Now that Good Things is global – working in the UK and Australia – we’re hoping to spread this knowledge and commitment to digital skills and improving health. In Australia, we know the demand is there from our network partners – with 70% of them saying they were already blending digital literacy and digital health literacy or that they were very interested in doing so. We’re really keen to help them with this.

It’s never been a hard ‘sell’ to convince people that they want to apply their newly learned basic digital skills to accessing better health services. Everyone gets ill, everyone has loved ones who get ill – it’s universal.

It’s so important that, as digital health services take off and really deliver better and more personalised services, we work harder to ensure that nobody is left behind.

All the findings mentioned here are available online: for the first phase of our NHS Widening Digital Participation Programme (2013-2016) and for our second phase (2017-2020) on our Digital Health Lab site.

 

The State Of The Nation’s Digital Inclusion: Lloyd’s Consumer Digital Index 2019

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Today is the equivalent of Christmas day for those of us who dedicate our lives to tackling digital exclusion, with the release of Lloyds’ 2019 Consumer Digital Index. And, having read the report, I feel both optimism and concern in equal parts. Now, I hope you are feeling strong, because this blog is going to be stats-heavy.

Looking at the headline figures, there are 1.8 million more people this year with the highest level of digital capability than in 2018 – which is undoubtedly a good thing. The ‘Digitally Disengaged’ group (those who have little or not digital behaviours) is down by 1.5 million (6.1 million in 2019 compared to 7.5 million in 2018). 25% of UK adults (12.7 million) are ‘Digitally Competent’ (which means they have an email address and can shop and stream online) and 62% of the UK (31.5 million) are classed as ‘Digital First’ (they use multiple devices, shop and stream online and prefer to manage money digitally). I was even surprised to see that there’s a 11% increase in over 60s who shop online. The picture overall is rosier. But…

…and there is always a but…

The report does also highlight the importance of, what Lloyds calls the “Digital Dividend”. Whether that’s the £744 people can save by being online by shopping for local services or that 75% of people classed as ‘Digital First’ are saving money online, 57% of them have improved their employability and 42% of them use it to manage their physical and mental health Those of us who are ‘Digital First’ are paying up to 9% less for our utilities and we’re more likely to have started saving. It’s clear from the Lloyd’s Consumer Digital Index that if you’re digitally capable you are more likely to be happy, healthier and better off.

As the benefits of being online are clearer than ever, then also the urgency to get digitally excluded people online is greater than ever. The other side to the coin is that those who are ‘Digitally Disengaged’ are more disadvantaged than ever and whilst the number is decreasing, it is still a huge chunk of the population. Over 11.9 million people (22%) lack all of the essential digital skills, and 4.1 million people are offline. 7.1 million people cannot open an app and 6 million people cannot even turn a device on.

If nothing is done to address this, 4.5 million (8% of the UK population) will still be offline in 2030, when they will be even more disadvantaged than those who are offline now. I’ll address this later.

In the workplace, 54% of people now use the internet, up from 47% last year. And this is likely to increase year-on-year. Yet more than half of the workforce (50% for full-time workers, 64% for part-time) lack the essential digital skills for work. This is something that needs to be addressed by the private sector, as well as government, as a startling 63% of working people have never received any digital skills training from their employers. By investing in their employees’ digital skills, businesses will be investing in their own future as the industries they work in increasingly rewards those who are digitally innovative.

A stat that might surprise you is that 48% of people offline are under 60 – it’s becoming an increasingly incorrect assumption to believe that all younger people are online and ready for a future of work in the digital economy. The North East, which has more NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training) young people than any other region, also has a higher proportion of ‘Digitally Disengaged’ people. It is those who come from a poorer socioeconomic background who are most likely to be digitally excluded, with 47% of those who are offline coming from low-income households.

Whilst some of the findings are concerning, I’m an optimist and believe this gives us the grounds to tackle digital exclusion and reap the benefits of a fully digital included nation. The report mentions that by 2030, 8% of the adult population will still be offline – and this is something that we need to address as a priority.

Last year, we published Blueprint for a 100% Digitally Included Nation, which sets out how we can ensure everyone is digitally included by 2028 – and one of the key actions is that employers need to do more to support their workforce – something that is backed up by today’s report

Another area both the Consumer Digital Index and our Blueprint reference is the challenge of motivation, or of making the internet relevant. Three quarters of offline adults say they have no interest in getting online, and of the offline population who say ‘nothing’ could get them online, 89% have cited cybersecurity and fraud concerns as the main barrier.  Although this stat is surprising, it is something that we can overcome. As I discussed earlier this month, the government are introducing their Online Harms White Paper to address some of the aspects of the internet which, to non-users, make it seems like the Wild West. And our Online Centres, and many others, are doing great work to tackle the barriers and support people to use digital safely.

At the launch event, we were lucky to be asked to run a session focussed on the stories behind the stats – whilst the stats presented in today’s report clearly make a huge impact, it’s the stories that really drive the message home. Whether it’s people like Jean from Thanet, who is retired and was really frightened about “someone pinching [her] identity” online, but is now confidently using digital, and seeing the huge benefits it can provide. Or Shirley, who was very cautious about being online, until she took some Learn My Way classes which taught her how to stay safe online – and she has already identified a couple of scams.

To further the progress highlighted in Lloyds’ report today, we must address people’s fear and motivate them to see how digital can change their life for the better. We know this better than anyone as this is really our bread-and-butter, and alongside our partners – particularly in the Online Centres Network – we’re helping people break down the barriers they put up between themselves and a better, more digitally included, future.

So while the report does make for some depressing reading, it provides a real opportunity – the more we know, the more we can do. And with so many engaged and energetic people in one room this afternoon – and many more supporting this agenda across the country – I know we can tackle some of these barriers.

Digital exclusion in the UN report on UK extreme poverty and human rights

Yesterday the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, released a report on his two week visit to Great Britain and Northern Ireland – and it makes pretty difficult reading.

Philip Alston and his team visited the UK last year to find out more about poverty and human rights in the UK, and we were pleased to meet members of his team, and to share our own thoughts – particularly focussing on how digital can both exacerbate and overcome issues of poverty and exclusion, especially around the UK welfare system.  

Within the report, Professor Alston gets stuck into some of the issues we’ve raised about the digital capabilities for Universal Credit claimants to be able to fill out the forms. Highlighting the “digital first” nature of Universal Credit (although he later goes further to claim it is effectively “digital only”), Professor Alston writes “The British welfare state is gradually disappearing behind a webpage and an algorithm, with significant implications for those living in poverty”, and by assuming that all claimants have the digital skills needed to complete the form, the DWP “has built a digital barrier that obstructs access to benefits, and particularly disadvantages women, older people, people who do not speak English and persons with disabilities”

This is something we hear regularly from a lot of the 5,000 Online Centres in Good Things Foundation’s Online Centres Network, who are our hyperlocal community partners that are on the frontline in communities, helping to ensure that people don’t fall through the cracks when they need to apply for Universal Credit. This might be because they don’t have the skills they need, they don’t have access to the internet, or a device that makes filling forms in easy – and this is something that government doesn’t seem to have considered fully when implementing its flagship welfare reform policy

The report confirms this. There are 11.3 million in the UK who don’t have essential digital skills, and these people are the most likely to be socially excluded, with 90% of non-users being classed as disadvantaged. This includes people with poor health or a disability, people in social class DE, and people who left school before the age of 16.

It’s glaringly obvious that the digital first nature of Universal Credit means you need to have basic digital skills, however it is Universal Credit claimants who are least likely to have basic digital skills. This creates issues that just aren’t being adequately addressed.

Although the report references some of the support and funding that is being provided, particularly through Citizens Advice, to support Universal Credit claimants with digital, this is really only scratching the surface. Some of the hyperlocal organisations who are part of Good Things’ Online Centre Network are providing support day in, day out to access Universal Credit, and we know that friendly, familiar places in the community are those most likely to engage those who are digitally excluded. These organisations need supporting and funding fairly, to continue providing the help they have been providing, to those who most need it.

And that in itself is a point that we’ve been making repeatedly since the policy began rolling out – the digital first nature of UC presents a significant opportunity to tackle digital exclusion amongst claimants, and introduce them to the benefits of digital so they can do other things online too, like applying for work, saving money on their bills and learning more about the things that interest them. With the right support, digital welfare has the potential to be a force for good, but the proper digital assistance needs to be available. If not, we risk increasing poverty and reducing quality of life for those most in need of support. However, if proper support is given and we seize this chance to reach some of society’s most digitally excluded people, it could have the opposite effect. The report published as part of our ‘Bridging the Digital Divide’ campaign, shows a significant return on investment in digital skills. Providing everyone in the UK with the essential digital skills they need by 2028 will lead to a benefit of £15 for every £1 invested, and a net present value of £21.9 billion. Of this, the research estimates savings of £313m in employment benefits alone through a fully digital nation.

The UN Special Rapporteur’s report highlights some findings that will stop you dead in your tracks. However, we cannot afford to stop in trying to address the issues raised. If we are to better the life chances of those who are being left further and further behind, then we need to act and we need to act now. Whilst the report has been released during a very busy news week, I hope its blistering findings resonates and becomes the catalyst for the government and other groups to use digital as a ladder to help people climb out of poverty, improve their life chances and foster a more digital inclusive economy and society that isn’t just addressing the problems of today, but is ready for the challenges of tomorrow.