August 26, 2021

Reflections on a decade of digital inclusion

by Anna Grant, Georgina Bowyer and Douglas White, Carnegie UK

Carnegie UK has had an interest in digital inclusion for nearly a decade, recognising the importance of digital access, skills and confidence to individual, community and societal wellbeing.  As we move forward into a new strategy [see here], this blog reflects on this area of our work.

The why (in brief)

Over the past 20 years, the prevalence and the use of digital technologies in our everyday lives has exploded.  The pandemic particularly highlighted the significant disadvantages facing those without online access to employment opportunities, training, or essential services.  There are also financial implications of not being online, given that it is often more costly and time-consuming to access goods and services offline.  Our work has shown that it is often those who are most likely to experience disadvantage or inequality who are also most likely to lack digital access, and therefore there is an effect of compounding disadvantage [for example see here].

The components of digital inclusion

Whilst the pandemic has brought these things more clearly into view for policy makers, understanding the barriers to digital inclusion is complex and there continues to be more to learn to ensure interventions are the most efficient and effective they can be.  This may be in part due to the lack of a universally-accepted definition of digital inclusion – something that would bring clarity,focus and consistency to all those working in the field.  Through our research and practical work, at Carnegie UK we have developed our own understanding of five critical components of digital inclusion: a device, a connection, skills and motivation, a safe online environment, and sustainability of access.  The importance of each of these components is now much more readily accepted and understood than it may have been five or ten years ago – nonetheless solutions and interventions that acknowledge and actively address all of these aspects of digital inclusion together are uncommon.

The importance of lived experience

Holistic, person-centred approaches to enabling sustained digital inclusion are crucial.  For example, will the device or connection be affordable on an ongoing basis?  Is there appropriate and timely support available if the device breaks, or if a person forgets their log in details?  Additionally, what is termed ‘adequate digital access’ today is likely to change over the months and years ahead.  As more and more aspects of daily life are asked or required to be undertaken online, not least as a result of the acceleration in digital delivery brought forward by the pandemic, the number and quality of devices required in any household is likely to increase, and alongside it, the requirement for connectivity and skills.  This is one of the reasons we emphasise the importance of lived experience continuing to influence policy and practice.

Measuring digital inclusion

Digital inclusion, as well as being difficult to define and address, is notoriously difficult to quantify.  This issue of effective measurement is something we have given time and attention to over the years.  Sources such as  the ONS and Ofcom provide vital insight and headline figures, such as that 5% of households still do not have internet access at home [Ofcom Technology Tracker 2021]. However, we have yet to see a form of measurement which takes into account all components of digital access – such as those who may have a connection to their home, but do not have a suitably working device, or do not have the appropriate skills to access the information and services that meet their needs.  Whilst inherently difficult to design and produce, it is imperative that we have national statistics that can reflect these nuances, to ensure that the solutions we deliver are reaching all those who are excluded in some way.  We hope that forthcoming work by Liverpool University, Loughborough University and Good Things Foundation on a Minimum Digital Living Standard will be an important contribution on this issue.

Evaluating success

To support truly effective solutions we don’t just need to know the scale of the problem but to understand how to measure the difference interventions have made.  To strengthen the proverbial business case, we need to continue to develop the evidence base and evaluate the impact of digital inclusion interventions across a range of wellbeing outcomes.

A long-term strategy and embedded approaches

We have seen that one-off digital inclusion interventions, such as those deployed over the pandemic, can serve a useful purpose, but are often reactive and finite and therefore limited in impact.  Looking to the future, what is needed is a proactive long-term strategic approach, and an approach that is embedded across different sectors and services.  We have seen growing numbers of cross-sector collaborations, where national and local government, charities, community organisations, schools, housing associations, technology companies, local and big business have worked together to find solutions.  There are opportunities to take this further.  Through the embedding of digital inclusion approaches into existing structures and services, we can create an environment that is sensitive to those who are digitally excluded, that reduces structural barriers to inclusion, and which is able to recognise where people need support and have the ability to offer this in a holistic way with recognition of the particular aspects of access and inclusion are problematic for that person and why.

In our recent report Closing the Digital Divide we outlined how the government, local authorities and schools might work together to deliver a rolling programme of support for children and young people who need help with digital access.  Making sure that every child is digitally included at school age would be another huge step forward.

Digital inclusion support for frontline services

As many of the best examples show, it is often people who are already involved at community level who are best placed to support those who need help with digital access.  There is a role for government and for funders, to recognise the potential of frontline services for digital inclusion, and to provide the finance and training needed to ensure these organisations are able to continue to play that role.  Government and other funders can also help to enable efficiency savings through the procurement of devices and connectivity at scale, given their purchasing power and potentially the ability to secure better terms.  Through our involvement with digital inclusion, we have also seen the benefit of sharing information and experience between organisations and learning from each other.  Continuing to have robust forms of evaluation and networks to share learning will ensure initiatives complement one another, and that they are delivered as effectively and efficiently as possible.

A safe online environment

We recognise a safe online environment as one of our five components of digital inclusion, and our work on the online harms legislation will continue as one of our first tranche of wellbeing programmes under our new strategy – you can read about that here.

Over the past decade we have been pleased to see digital inclusion gain further attention and investment, and, as a result of the pandemic, there now feels a real opportunity to make significant progress in breaking down these challenges with greater focus and attention.  Nonetheless, as it was ten years ago, it continues to be the case that digital exclusion compounds entrenched disadvantage and inequality and therefore work must not stop.  We commend the individuals and organisations working in this space and continue to cheer you on.

To read more how digital inclusion will be relevant to our new strategy, please read the accompanying blog here.