Feeding the digital elephants

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan April 28, 2013
We've been talking about the great 'digital divide' for many a long year, but with governments of all political persuasions now locked into Digital by Default roadmaps to a greater or lesser degree it's never been more important.

There's always been a honking great elephant in the room when it comes to any discussion of digital strategies in the public sector.

While the intention is to make it easier to access government services, those in need of  gaining such access may well be those most likely to be digitally dis-enfranchised and thus able to take advantage.

Now, we've been talking about the great 'digital divide' for many a long year, but with governments of all political persuasions now locked into Digital by Default roadmapsto a greater or lesser degree it's never been more important.

Back in 2011, the UK communications regulator, Ofcom found Glasgow residents were missing the benefits of the internet because of poor broadband uptake, the lowest of any major city in the UK at just over 50% of all adults.

That situation hasn't improved much since then according to the Carnegie UK Trust which found broadband take-up was lower than average across all demographic groups and warned that exclusion from online access will just widen existing inequalities in the city unless action was taken.

A report from the Trust found that overall, only 60% of Glaswegians are online at home. Somewhat depressingly, only 57% of those not online expressed a wish to go online in the future. You can lead a horse to water etc.

Meanwhile research firm Ipsos MORI reported that while over 82% of the UK public can now get online, internet access using any source among housing association tenants stands at 64%, 16 points lower than the national average. Access among council housing tenants is currently 14 points lower (at 68%)

Stephen Finlay, Ipsos MORI's head of housing, planning and development, noted:

"Not everyone is experiencing the digital revolution to the same degree. The age divide is well known but our latest analysis shows a stark divide by tenure. Ensuring social tenants do not get left behind in this new digital age and can access services is increasingly important."

"There are many signs that landlords are alert to this with the adoption of innovative digital inclusion strategies but our latest evidence suggests there is still a long way to go. Bridging the digital divide is very necessary as the government adopts a ‘digital by default’ approach to implementing welfare reforms, and social landlords help will be pivotal."

In a bid to try to tackle this, social landlords are now able to bid for their share of a new government fund to help tenants improve internet skills. There's £400,000 in the pot from the government, with social landlords expected to match that, meaning a (theoretical) total sum of £800,000 is up for grabs to be spent across ten projects through the United Kingdom.

The digital deal project is being managed by social enterprise Online Centres Foundation and social landlords have until 3 June to bid for the match funding.

Lord David Freud, minister for welfare reform, said:

"The internet plays a key role in many people’s lives and indeed most employers look for good online skills in their candidates. Yet many tenants in social housing don’t have access to the internet. So we are launching digital deal to support those who want to get online so they can access the opportunities the internet opens up – for example to help search and apply for jobs, find out about community services and to manage their benefits online."

There is a real danger that the aching modernity of Digital by Default polices are more attractive to politicians than dealing with the practicalities of the underlying infrastructure and economic issues underpinning them.

For example, if you're not earning or you have a poor credit history, then will you pass the credit checks to be given broadband? And that's assuming you're in an area of the country that has decent connectivity in the first place!

So I'd say that this digital deal push is a start, but no more than that. I'm not about to criticise any additional funding being made available, but £400,000 of government funding is a drop in the ocean - and the success of this is dependent on social landlords having the cash in hand to match the taxpayer money being handed out.

Without more urgent and better funded action, that elephant will trumpet away for a long time to come.

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