The digital divide

Written by Eric Lui – secondee from the Civil Service Fast Stream

a picture of 'mind the gap' on a tube platform

My colleague Row recently wrote about the digital skills gap in government. She pointed to the good work organisations such as GDS were doing but also the progress that still needs to be made. She ended with a thought provoking statement:

“…by improving the digital skills across its own workforce, could government then begin to lead in advancing the digital skills of its citizens?”

This made me wonder. Looking beyond government, how ‘digital’ is the UK? So I went ahead and did some digging, the stats below are enlightening:

Currently 1 in 5, or 10.5 million people lack the basic digital skills and capabilities required to realise the benefits of the internet.

43% of the individuals that lack these basic digital skills are of working age.

Around a third of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) don’t have a website. This rises to over 50% if you include voluntary, community and social enterprises (VCSEs).

Being a ‘millennial’, I can put my hand up and say I’ve been guilty of taking digital literacy for granted. Doing a stint at a large technology company with a fruit for a name exposed me to some pretty head-in-hands episodes; a wide-eyed lady once walked in with her unplugged modem asking us to ‘fix the internet’.

However, the stats are no laughing matter. Independent research by management consultancy firm Booz & Co. estimate that full digital take up could add £63 billion value to the UK economy. Parliament also recognise the gravity of the issue, a recent report by the Select Committee on Digital Skills concluded:

“ Digital skills (the skills needed to interact with digital technologies) are now necessary life skills. Individuals and businesses alike will need skills to protect themselves online. It is not acceptable for any group to be excluded from access to digital technologies. We must aspire for the vast majority of the population to achieve the level of digital literacy needed to fully participate in society.”

Clearly the problem is challenging but the rewards are great.

The same report puts up a number of recommendations for government. In particular an emphasis to address the deficit in provision for digital education at all levels. Government has provided an initial response to the report, though according to the Chair of the Select Committee, Baroness Morgan, it was a bit disappointing. It’s definitely a ‘watch this space’ worth monitoring. Technology is been moving at lightning pace. The government has a real task on its hands to ensure that the UK is not left behind in the emerging digital era.

But enough about politics. The ‘digital challenge’ should be bipartisan and embraced by all. We need it to be. I’ve set out what the challenge is so far and it would be mean to leave you with no light at the end of the tunnel. Unsurprisingly Martha Lane Fox’s efforts have not gone unnoticed.

One of those is Go ON, a digital skills charity dedicated to helping everyone have the basic digital skills they need. You’re asking, what are these basic digital skills, well they’ve created a handy framework to explain. In the spirit of public participation they have even set up a Digital Skills Charter to inspire people and organisations to commit to helping others to gain those skills alongside a web tool to help.

The one I’m more interested in is her recent initiative to set up Dot Everyone with it’s broad sweeping purpose to “to transform understanding and use of the internet in every aspect of UK life”. It will aim to lead the charge and thrust Britain as a leader in the digital world prioritising opportunities in education, women and ethics. It definitely doesn’t lack ambition and considering the statistics above, if successful, the implications could be tremendous. With 10,000 signatures clocked on the petition on change.org it has certainly has some momentum.

Technology is just one component of digital democracy. Delib strives to build tools which improve the interaction between government and citizens, continually improving them to be more responsive and better for everyone. However, clearly there are still barriers to some groups of users getting online and taking advantage of these tools to make their voice heard. The digital divide is real and present but it is heartening to see efforts being made to close it.