ND15: The deadline for a digital nation

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of giving the closing keynote for the National Digital Conference below. Here’s what I said.

Every story needs a beginning, a middle and an end, so this is where my digital journey started.

This is a photo of me in 1985 – 30 years ago. When I first started working in the internet sector (helping children to communicate online) the world wide web hadn’t even been invented yet.

Helen, 1985







We’ve seen such our society be transformed immensely: the way we work and collaborate, and start and build businesses; and, the way we live, 24/7 shopping, banking, social contact, pay our taxes.

Matthew Hancock’s speech earlier today was so positive, I believe that he wants to make services better – as well as cheaper – through digital.

Many things have been transformed to such an extent that we no longer recognise it. The only person who ever writes me a letter for example is my Mum.

In 1985 a futurologist, Ray Hammond, said “Now that day has arrived … the humble school micro provides a gateway to a world of knowledge so vast that it is breathtaking at its first acquaintance” So there’s a part of me that thinks if we knew of the power of the internet, why in 2015 do we live in such a divided society?

We live in a digital society and we live in a divided society, and an unequal digital society.

In 2015 if you’re born poor you will die poor. We have over 1m people who need to eat from food banks. People are having the benefits stopped because they don’t know how to search for jobs online using Universal Job Match.

We live in a divided nation – and digital exacerbates that.

It isn’t right that 10m people’s lives are poorer and harder because they can’t or don’t use the internet. I’ve been impressed and pleased with the support that the new Government is showing to digital inclusion. Matthew Hancock understands technology and wants to make lives better – it’s a good start.

Today we heard Ed Vaizey say that the Government was refreshed, energetic and keen to do more with digital and digital inclusion.

It’s likely that in this age of austerity the driver for digital inclusion – however it’s presented – is to reduce the costs of people transacting with Government. The people who are excluded, are high volume users of Government services, so if they remain excluded they will continue to cost the Government a lot of money. The digital transformation of Government can’t succeed with 10m people lacking basic digital skills.

So why in 2015 do we have such a digitally divided society?

We have a great sector, we have a lot of great people and organisations doing great work. Looking across the room today it’s fabulous to have collaborative cross sector drive and leadership from public, private, and the voluntary and community sector here sharing ideas and passions.

But we need a better plan. A more ambitious plan.

I have two sons and the older one is football mad. From the age of about two he kicked balls around, so we started that weekend delight of watching small boys play football badly – usually on very cold days – from when he was about six years old. If you’ve ever watch small children play football you’ll know what I mean – no space, no tactics, no strategy, just ‘look there’s the ball’ and run after it. Sometimes I think the digital inclusion sector is a bit like those six year olds playing football.

We’ve heard many good speeches today, fascinating stats, and great ideas.

Rachel Neaman started well this morning suggesting that we should eradicate digital exclusion, the gender imbalance in the tech sector, and poor digital skills in businesses by 2025. By the time of the 20th National Digital Conference.

I’d like to be more ambitious and take one of those – digital exclusion – and set ourselves a deadline – 2020. By 2020 let’s not live in a digitally divided nation.

Here are four things that worry me that we need to sort:


1. There’s no silver bullet

We know what works – community based support and help, personalised – supported with leadership and guidance from organisations like Tinder Foundation and others – who help with ideas, products and support.

Simply more investment in what works results in more people gaining digital skills and changing their lives. Martha said earlier that it’s foolish to not spend money as the money saved is far greater than the money we need to spend.

2. Why don’t Employers do more for their own staff?

It’s great to work with Lloyds Banking Group, Vodafone, TalkTalk and BT on projects and digital champions. Thank you for your support, it’s really valuable.

But what about employers working to upskill their own staff? How about: A Digital Basics Employer Accreditation or Investors in Digital People. Just like an employer can get accreditation for being a Living Wage employer how about a “Digital Basics” Employer. Why not a transparent accreditation or badge for an employer who knows that all their staff have basic digital skills. And it must include contract staff such as cleaners, security, and catering staff.

And let’s start with the Public Service. Government just must know that all their staff and all their contract staff have basic digital skills. They must do it.

3. What about the really poor people who just can’t afford devices and broadband?

Today on the radio I heard a woman from a charity working in Calais giving support to migrants and asylum seekers sleeping rough. She said they provided them with “food, clothes, and phone chargers”.

As the digital divide narrows it deepens. A year ago 21% of people said that they didn’t use the internet because of the cost of devices and broadband. This year it’s 32%. We must acknowledge that there are people who just can’t afford it.

Whose responsibility is it to tackle this issue?

Will we look back and think this is a basic utility just like electricity and gas?

Instinctively this feels too risky – from a ‘Daily Mail’ point of view for the Gov to get involved – so that leaves the private and the volcom sector.

Without a solution to this issue we will always leave people behind.

4. Better understanding of the relationship between improved social outcomes and the digital inclusion contribution to that impact

Last year we commissioned “A Leading Digital Nation by 2020: Calculating the cost of delivery online skills for all” with Economist, Catherine McDonald. It’s a great read that proves that the investment is low compared to the reward.

However, what Catherine’s report did say is that by 2020 6.3m people will still lack basic digital skills if we just keep doing what we’re doing now (at today’s investment).

Those 6.3m people will be the poorest, the disabled, young and old people lacking a range of skills, and who will have a range of complex needs.

We know that digital inclusion drives social inclusion, I’ve met people who tell me that they are alive because a local community organisation helped them to learn how to use the internet. It saved their lives. This is the sort of transformation we want more of.

We know this, but we need more evidence and we need to know what more we can do to drive better social outcomes through digital inclusion. Focusing first on the social impact, seeing digital as the tool to get there.

Today it’s announced that Tinder Foundation, working with Family Fund, Mind, Homeless Link, and a number of local community organisations will rebuild the lives of people through the Rebook UK project. personalised digital skills training and community-based support which will enable them to be more in charge of their own lives. So by Christmas we’ll have a few more answers.

We need to be more ambitious. But are we just too polite and too patient.


We should get angry and get organised.


We need a deadline.


Let’s pledge to 100% of people in the UK using the internet by 2020.

In 2020, let us all be here celebrating a digital nation, that inclusive and equal for everyone.

One thought on “ND15: The deadline for a digital nation

  1. Pingback: ND15: The deadline for a digital nation – Helen Milner | Public Sector Blogs

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