At our Digital Evolution conference in November, Ed Vaizey, Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy, said that since 2010 the Government has invested about £30m to help people get the basic digital skills they need to function as part of our increasingly digital society. This was the same day that Chancellor George Osborne delivered the Autumn Statement and Spending Review, giving the Government Digital Service a cash injection of £450 million. Ed talked about the people that Government investment to date has helped, and how important it is to do more – and he also told us that the Government sees digital participation as a continuingly important issue.
Naturally, I jumped at the chance to put my views across in person this week at the Science and Technology Select Committee in Parliament, examining the digital skills gap for the Government’s Digital Strategy Review.
There are still 12.6 million people in the UK who lack basic digital skills and of these, 49% are disabled, 63% are over 75 and 60% have no formal qualifications. But the punchline is that it’s the poorest in our society – those who are already being left behind – who aren’t benefiting from digital.
We’re in the same boat
I sat on a panel with Nick Williams, Consumer Digital Director of Lloyds Banking Group, and Margaret Sambell, Director of Strategy at the Tech Partnership. We were followed by another panel with Dr Ellen Helsper, Director of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor at the London School of Economics, Charlotte Holloway, Head of Policy and Associate Director at TechUK, and Steven Roberts, Strategic Transformation Director at Barclays PLC. Although the panel sessions were based around different topics, it seemed to me like we all feel the same way – we’re doing well but the government needs to take charge and work with many others to accelerate the digital agenda.
My four-point plan
You can watch the full meeting below, courtesy of Parliament Live TV, but one of the main things that I put across for consideration in the review was my four-point plan – something which I think is very important for the government to consider:
- Leadership: The UK lacks clarity on what we want to achieve. We need a goal. I recommend that the Government sets a goal, for example 98% of the UK population with basic digital skills, and then provides the leadership and coordination to make sure we get on with it and succeed. Government is uniquely placed to convene and encourage key organisations to get this sorted.
- Behavioural change: With so many people who have never used the internet saying it’s because they don’t see the relevance of the web to their lives, we don’t just need to help with skills – we need to get people interested in the first place. I think the private sector could lead this, as they’re already so good at persuading us to buy all sorts of things!
- Skills, informal, and local: Our network is great, and all of the research shows why it works so well, as people want support to get basic digital skills by someone like them, which also means someone local to them too. Adults need learning to be informal, not to feel like school, and to be as personalised as possible. Tinder Foundation and our hyperlocal partners help about a quarter of a million people a year. We could double that delivery, but if you do the maths, us working along means we’d reach the 12.6 million at a much slower pace than we would if we worked together. What else can be done? Can the Government incentivise employers of low-skilled people to help them to digitally upskill their workforce for example?
- Make digital more affordable: As the digital divide deepens, the cost of devices and broadband is a big issue for some who are still offline. People are finding things tough, and that means even the best deals are out of their reach. Government needs to work with tech companies and broadband providers to make digital more affordable. I don’t know the answer but I’m sure the Government using its convening power can bring relevant companies together and make the internet affordable for everyone, and especially to those in the lowest socio-economic groups.
Speaking from experience
I listened with great interest to committee member Carol Monaghan MP, a member of the Scottish National Party. Carol seemed very clued up on digital inclusion and the importance of it, as she told us about her 80-year-old father who regularly tinkers with his iPad and makes mistakes, which his family then need to fix for him. She also said, however, that she was glad he at least tries to use it. This reminded me of the man that I met during my visit to Nottingham Libraries last week, whose family do all of his online transactions for him but don’t have time to teach him to do it himself.
In my final comments, I told the committee that I think the Government Digital Strategy should articulate a clear aim, and that I would like to see 98% of the population with basic digital skills by 2020. Norway is there already – it’s not an over-ambitious goal. I know 100% is a scary thought.
A goal that’s both ambitious and achievable, Government leadership through a taskforce or a cross-sector Council, and a four-point plan – that’s what we need. Then, together, we can achieve a better, stronger, more productive, digital nation, helping those most in need to become fully functioning members of our digital society.
To quote Dr Ellen Helsper, “Digital is 70% of my job, but 100% of my life” – let’s make it 100% of everyone’s.