I’ve been involved in digital inclusion in one way or another since 2003, that’s nearly twenty years! First working on the Home Computing Initiative, then on Home Access and then in a variety of roles within organisations such as Go On UK and now the DPA. But the challenge remains and despite multiple initiatives over the years the number of people who aren’t able to fully engage in the digital world so many of us take for granted is stubbornly high. 11 million people lack essential digital skills, 42% of offline user don’t believe being online is for them and 53% of those offline cannot afford a monthly broadband bill.
It is this last statistic that concerns me most at the moment. New data points to 2.5 million households are currently in arrears with their broadband provider. That’s 2.5 million households that are in danger of becoming disconnected in a very short period of time. We are hearing stories of households having to choose between diner and data and at a time of unprecedented pressure on household budgets our expectation is that over the coming months the situation will only get worse. There is the very real prospect that for the first time ever we could see the UK start to go backwards with regard to household access to the internet.
In amongst all of this something interesting has started to happen. My experience over the years has largely been one of having to convince policy makers and those transforming government services to become digital that this is an issue they need to not only take seriously but engage with head on. That has not been easy, although at an individual level there is plenty of empathy, that has not translated into action at an organisational level. Typically people working on digital transformation find it hard to believe that in 2022 there are significant numbers of people who either can’t or won’t engage with technology the way many of us take for granted.
That has been my experience until very recently. Over the past two months, for the first time ever, various government departments have proactively been reaching out to us in the DPA for help and advice. Typically the discussion is centred around concerns that vulnerable users won’t be able to access the services they are building. These are often but not exclusively older people, those within the criminal justice system, people using foodbanks and families in receipt of benefits. If you take the number of people that fit into those categories it is huge.
Given my previous experience of having limited traction of this issue with policy makers I have been struck but the change of tone and approach. Could it be that within a very short period of time, civil servants in different departments have simultaneously become aware and convinced that they need to consider those users that are digitally excluded from their shiny new digital transformation projects. Or is something more fundamental happening, a noticeable change in the ability of their users to engage with their digital services? Are they starting to see pressure building from their service users who are struggling to engage for a number of reasons?
We can only speculate at this stage as to the reasons for this increased focus on inclusion and with over 1.5m refugees currently displaced across Europe there is a very high likelihood that we will all need to be on standby to respond quickly to requests for help.
Here at the DPA we continue to develop our long term strategy but also focus on what practical help we can provide today. We have offers of support to provide several hundred laptops with free data to refugees fleeing the conflict in Ukraine and we will be working with our partners to support families with children as they try to rebuild their lives in the UK.
There has never been a moment when having access to technology has felt more important and essential, whatever your struggle, it is undeniable that access to technology is going to be able to provide better opportunities than not having it. We at the DPA stand ready to work with our community to do our bit to help. Please join us and see how you can contribute.
Tristan Wilkinson, Digital Poverty Alliance.