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.

 

For Good Work we need to address inequalities: Future of Work

Yesterday I gave a speech at the Institute of the Future of Work’s Conference on “Setting the Vision: the Future of Work in Britain” in Westminster. The event was in collaboration with the APPG (All Party Parliamentary Group) on Inclusive Growth. Here is what I said.

 

Good Things Foundation is a social change charity that is driving social and digital inclusion. We work with thousands of hyperlocal partners, supporting excluded people to become digitally able and active and apply this to important aspects of their lives be it health or getting a job or grow financial resilience. Working to deliver good lives and good society.

We’ve supported over 2.8 million people, but I don’t want to start with a stat I want to start with the story of a real person and her own journey to digital and social inclusion. This shows the intersectionality between digital and social inclusion.

Carolyn Hill was unexpectedly made redundant. She was devastated. Her lack of work was compounded with debt, having left a partner who had put her into real financial difficulties. Carolyn needed a new job and knew she’d have to apply online but she didn’t know how. She didn’t even know how to turn a computer on, and waited for her children to come home from school to do job searches for her. Eventually, Carolyn got support from a local Liverpool community partner to learn new basic digital skills, and they helped her to learn how to manage her finances, and gave her volunteering opportunities. Carolyn got a job she loves – cleaning for Arriva.

To get to a society that prioritises good work we need to address persistent inequalities, and focus on three things: 1. Digital Equality. 2. The Power of Local. 3. Fixing the demand side.

1. Digital Equality

Working age adults in households in the poorest social economic groups are three times more likely to be non-internet users.

Digital is amazing, life enhancing, and beneficial, and as with so many other things it compounds inequality. Digital exclusion exacerbates social exclusion. And with over 11m people who are digitally illiterate, millions of people are at risk of being left further behind. The good news is we can do something about it.

We can achieve a 100% digitally included Britain, in a positive and purposeful way. Good Things Foundation is leading a partner campaign – Bridging the Digital Divide – calling on political parties and other organisations to help the UK become the most digitally included nation globally, ensuring we get 100% of the people in the UK thriving in a digital world by 2028. If we don’t then in ten years there will still be almost 7 million adults who remain excluded from our digital society.

I’m frustrated that our work only reaches a quarter of a million people a year when millions of people need support, but working in partnership, and working on collective solutions, I know we can achieve more.

2. The Power of local.

I believe that the big answers lie in large scale and system changes, and I believe we absolutely need local to be part of this. We talk about work being ‘hollowed out’ by disruption and technology; but it’s important to see that austerity has hollowed out many of our communities, and I don’t just mean high streets, I mean community organisations who no have no money and if they’re surviving often it’s because staff who were once paid are now volunteers. We must make it a priority to reverse this and make communities stronger again.

At Good Things Foundation, we work with thousands of hyperlocal community organisations, and our work shows the power of local – in valuing ownership by local community players, working across all sectors, using co-design to find solutions that meet needs, and delivering blended solutions (with both fabulous human beings + use digital tools for the heavy lifting, scaling, measurement, and quality).

This is “networked hyper local” – both bottom up and top-down models and action; being both in the heart of communities and here in Westminster.

Good work will depend on strong local communities – and we must reverse the current decline, we must believe in the power of local.

3. Fix the demand side (as well as supply side).

The recent Social Mobility Commission Report told us that 49% of the poorest adults have received no workplace training since leaving school, compared to 20% of the richest adults. This means those on low pay, or with a lower basic level of skills, are often trapped in low paying jobs, without the opportunity to upskill, and are being excluded from new opportunities. We can’t just fix the supply side and assume the ‘lifelong learner’ side will fix itself.

The people who really need good work, are also the same people who need lifelong learning. These are not the people who demand it, nor those who turn up when it’s provided.

The people I meet in our local community partners’ centres too often lack hope. They feel that they have been failed for decades, we’ve got to help him to believe that there is a better future – aspiration is important. We need to face up to the fact that many people have low learning confidence meaning they won’t just spontaneously look for learning opportunities. We need to focus not just on skillset but on mindset too.

Persistent inequality in learning cannot be fixed with just more “courses” by the same providers. We need to be innovative in the pathways we’re offering. We need to ensure we’re enabling and empowering so that people have the confidence, self efficacy, adaptability and a joy of learning so they can be resilient to all that they want to achieve in their working lives is possible.

We must make lifelong learning that is truly for everyone. We must work hard to reach the people least likely to engage. We need to motivate and inspire people to feel hope, to believe in themselves, to see the pathways for them to learning new skills, and to better participation in the decisions that affect them.

Carolyn didn’t just lack the skills she needed to apply for work online, she needed someone to believe in her, to understand the range of barriers she faced, to give her an opportunity to fix her finances and volunteer as well as learn basic digital skills. The support she got didn’t just give her a leg up to find work, but it made her a happier, healthier and better off human being, who is more connected to her community.

Warm words and a big vision is not enough – we need action and practical steps. We can use digital inclusion to help provide pathways, to reduce inequalities, and to shape a better future of work and make sure that everyone has access to good work and good lives.

Digital and the opportunities for driving social mobility

Yesterday, the Social Mobility Commission released their State of the Nation 2018-19 report, which painted a mixed view of social mobility in the UK.

It was disappointing to see that inequality is still such a huge issue in the UK, and one that doesn’t appear to be getting any better. As the report states, ‘being born privileged in Britain means that you are likely to remain privileged. Being born disadvantaged however, means that you may have to overcome a series of barriers to ensure that your children are not stuck in the same trap.’ This is something we see regularly through the work of our partners in communities throughout the UK. Inequality is rife, and it doesn’t appear to be getting any better.

The report highlights a huge issue in the workplace, with those from better off backgrounds almost 80% more likely to be in a professional job than people from working class backgrounds. And this is exacerbated by a vicious circle on disadvantage in terms of workplace skills –  49% of the poorest adults have received no training since leaving school, compared to 20% of the richest adults. This means those on low pay, or with a lower basic level of skills, are often trapped in low paying jobs, without the opportunity to upskill. This means they are being excluded from new opportunities.

The report makes two recommendations that I welcome:

  • Encouraging Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to work with the Department for Education on the Opportunity Areas programme; providing concentrated investment in the skills, jobs and infrastructure in these areas of low social mobility and low pay – and expanding the reach to more cold spots.
  • Encouraging employers and the Government to follow the action plan the Commission has set out in its January 2019 report on adult skills. In particular, the Government should equalise adult education funding with EU statistical averages and reduce the underspend of its adult education budget through more flexible funding structures.

We are keen to work with our partners in the Department for Education, and across Government, to support this activity. The Online Centres Network is already reaching those that are being left behind by more formal education. The network has supported over 2.5 million people to improve their basic digital skills since 2010, and over 80% of these people are socially excluded. The impact these improved skills have on individuals is significant, with 86% progressing to further learning, and 76% progressing to positive employment outcomes.

Like I said for last year’s Social Mobility Commission review, digital presents a huge opportunity to overcome some of the challenges of social mobility. We know that if you have no basic digital skills, you’re at a disadvantage in today’s world. You’ll struggle to search and apply for jobs, create a CV and to keep progressing within the workplace. Working age adults in households in the DE bracket are three times more likely to be non-internet users, despite them having the most to benefit from digital. And digital exclusion also exacerbates the poverty premium, as people on the lowest incomes can save £516 a year by being able to compare prices for goods and services. So it’s no surprise social mobility is grinding to a halt.

That’s why we’re calling on government and other partners to make a clear commitment to getting 100% of the nation digitally included through our Bridging the Digital Divide campaign. Last year, our Blueprint for a 100% Digitally Included Nation set out a 6 point action plan devised that would help address Britain’s stagnant social mobility and ensure that we can give digital skills to those who will benefit most. We’re keen to see free essential digital skills support for those who need it, delivered in the community so people can benefit from trusted faces in local places. We want to see employers take responsibility for 100% of their own staff having basic digital skills. And we want to make digital a social priority, bringing together social and digital inclusion to drive social change and help people to increase their confidence, self-efficacy and resilience.

Through closing the digital divide, we will be able to make it easier for those at the bottom of the ladder to climb up it. For the 52% of disadvantaged youths who leave school without a basic qualification and get stuck in low paid work, improving their digital skills will open up opportunities. For adult education – which has been in decline since 2010 – this would give it the much-needed shot in the arm. And for those whose jobs are set to become redundant due to the advent of automation, it will give them the ability to not just survive, but to thrive in a digital economy. Through this blueprint, and working alongside our partners, we hope we’ll be able to  press Ctrl+Alt+Delete on Britain’s stagnating social mobility.

We’re proud of our chair, Liz Williams, one of the Commissioners of the report. She is  tirelessly committed to social mobility and I know she and the other Commissioners will do all they can to ensure the recommendations in the report have real legs. And so, although the report makes for pretty bleak reading at times, it also presents a real opportunity to address social mobility in the UK, and to ensure that we level the playing field for the benefit of all.

 

Exciting innovations to support older people with technology

G’day! I’m currently working with our amazing team at Good Things Foundation Australia and whilst I have been here I’ve been reflecting a lot on the opportunities that digital technologies and services offers to older people. Here is Australia we’re working with local partners right across the country to support older Australians to thrive online through the Be Connected programme.

Recently, Good Things Foundation launched two fantastic guides; one was designed to help older people use the internet and the other explains how to use games to teach tablet skills. These are amazing resources which I think will help so many older people enjoy a better quality of life by unlocking their digital potential. These guides are excellent and, after a few minutes reading, virtually anyone will be able to give an older person a helping hand on their journey into using the internet or tablets. We’re going to adapt these guides so that they will be contextualised for Network Partners in Australia too.

When thinking of older people who are benefitting from using the internet, it makes me think of Edith who we worked with for Get Online Week a few years ago. She’ll be 91 now and she went from having low digital skills, to being an emailing, Skyping, digitally included superwoman! She found that her newly acquired digital skills have helped her to be able to manage her health and doctor’s prescriptions and she identified that, as she gets older and gets less mobile, the more useful her newfound digital skills will be. You can hear Edith’s story here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FxIKCAJ0yI

The new guide which explores how games can help older people learn how to use tablets is particularly ingenious, in my opinion, and I’m really excited to see the results that come from it. 52% of non-internet users aren’t online because they don’t see the need or because “being online is not for people like them”, and this is particularly the case amongst the 65+ demographic. Perhaps this attitude can be overcome through games. Using technology for the first time can be frightening, but making the learning process fun could overcome that. If people don’t want to “learn” about the internet, playing games doesn’t feel like learning. Yet, by playing the games, they’re learning how to use a touch screen, how to correct a mistake and that it’s fine to experiment. You can also begin to establish peer support if one of you has the tablet and the other knows how to play the game. I can’t wait to see the results from this guide being used.

Seeing the incredible work being done through the Be Connected program here in Australia has also made me reflect on the benefits of digital skills for older people. Since launching in 2017, we’ve built a growing network of over 2,200 community organisations who empower older Australians to thrive in an increasingly digital world. The network is diverse and covers everything from libraries to retirement villages, computer clubs to cultural groups and community centres to men’s sheds. In a short space of time, we’ve already supported over 100,000 people and counting.

I think the story that best typifies the amazing impact Be Connected can have is the story of Valerine and Lindsay Davis. Val’s Parkinson’s disease diagnosis kick-started her into taking digital literacy classes at Lockyer Community Centre and her husband Lindsay, who was the coordinator of the local Parkinson’s support group, and wanted to keep up. Val started with embracing social media so that they could reconnect with family members and to upload and manage her photos.  What brought this example to mind is that Val’s husband Lindsay uses his newfound digital skills not just to check the weather from the Bureau of Meteorology’s website, but to play games too. I wonder how many more people, like Lindsay, will develop their digital skills through games as well as using other digital tools and services.

The new guides are an excellent read for anyone wanting to show older people how to use the internet, and you don’t need to be a computer expert to do it – if you’re confident using the internet, then you already know enough.

The guide to helping older people use the internet is available here: https://www.onlinecentresnetwork.org/sites/default/files/a6_your_guide_to_helping_older_people_use_the_internet.pdf

And the guide to using games to teach tablet skills is available here: https://www.onlinecentresnetwork.org/sites/default/files/a6_your_guide_to_using_games.pdf

If you’re in the UK and you’d like a hard copy of either of these booklets, please email hello@goodthingsfoundation.org

And we will be adapting these for use in Australia in the next few months.

And if you’ve read this far, here’s an unrelated but lovely photo of some art painted on huge grain silos that I saw last weekend in regional Victoria, Australia. This one is in Brim, and was painted by Guido van Helten. Amazing. Enjoy!

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