This BCS Policy Jam discussed digital poverty, which affects millions in the UK. BCS and the Digital Poverty Alliance recently signed a memorandum of understanding to join together to tackle this issue. Claire Penketh reports.
The Chief Executive of the Digital Poverty Alliance, (DPA) Elizabeth Anderson and Freddie Quek, Chair of the BCS Digital Divide Specialist Group, laid out their vision of how to end digital poverty by 2030. They were joined by the Deputy Leader of North Somerset Council, Cllr Catherine Gibbons, who gave her insights into the challenges her teams face on the ground. Dan Aldridge, Head of BCS policy, chaired the panel.
Six-Point Strategy to Tackle Digital Poverty
Elizabeth began the discussion by outlining the DPA strategy:
"Mission One: The first is about raising awareness with policymakers, industry leaders, and the public. We know that only a fifth of adults who were experiencing digital poverty at the start of 2023 knew what the two words' digital poverty' meant when you put them together.
"We need to move past the feeling that being online is a luxury because it's not, it's essential these days, it's a basic utility. You can't live your life fully if you don't have internet connectivity. And that doesn't mean on one old broken smartphone. It means proper keyboarded devices or a tablet.
"Mission Two: Looking at devices and connectivity, and affordability. I think it is important to think about this in a new way. How do we find sustainable solutions that aren't just 'who will pay for the internet'? Is it the individual? Is it the government, or is it business? Who's going to do that? And it's exciting when we start having conversations that tear up some of that and think about how we get connectivity to people in new ways.
"Mission Three: This focuses on the use of online services and what people want online. Are they accessible to everyone? If you, for instance, build services that people with additional needs can use, everybody will be able to access those. How do we ensure that that's baked into how people think about designing services and the user experience?
Alongside this, how do we ensure people are safe when using those services? How do we ensure people have the critical thinking skills to recognise scams, fake news, etc.?
"Mission Four: This is around skills in the workplace, in education and for those excluded from work.
"Mission Five: This is about research and evidence building. The evidence base of our digital poverty is small because it's not been an issue going back for years - it's been an issue for the last 20 or 30 years.
"Mission Six: This is all about building local capacity, which is very much framed around local authorities. Whilst we want to create big, sustainable national social change, that will come. It will be rooted within local services, local people, friendly faces, physical spaces, and services that people trust within their community.”
She added: "Each of these missions has several actions that sit within them, both for the immediate term and then the medium and long term."
Joined-up thinking and action
For Freddie, the main issue was that many people and organisations have been working on initiatives to tackle digital poverty. But until recently, a lack of pulling together had hampered those efforts. He said: "The challenge here is a lack of connecting up, what I call joining the dots. The problem needs to be understood holistically because a lot of the effort that we put in today at all levels, from top to bottom, won't be sustainable because it hasn't been strategic, scalable or far-reaching enough.
"And this is why I really welcome the DPA joining with BCS to provide that framework of structure and policy guidance that enables many people like myself to contribute."
Councillor Catherine Gibbons talked about working with various groups that faced specific challenges regarding digital poverty – for instance, refugees and young people leaving care. She added that North Somerset Council was proud of its achievements in finding funding for projects, for example, that gave women the basic digital skills they needed for work and to participate more widely in society.
She added the Council had worked closely with schools, too. She described how some pupils and their families struggled during the pandemic: "There were families with three children trying to do their homework and the online lessons on one old tablet. People couldn't get, let's say, support to apply for grants and other financial help because they couldn't get access via their old phone.
"We've had an excellent uptake from our community learning team efforts to teach people entry-level digital skills. This issue is a huge focus for us.
"We do try to help. But it'll come as no surprise to you that, like all local authorities, the need is great, and money is in short supply."
BCS working with elected members of local authorities across the UK to tackle the digital divide.
Cllr. Gibbons talked about the clear need for digital skills and education at the level of elected members nationwide. With approximately 20,000 local councillors in England alone, these people are core enablers of services across our communities; learned societies like BCS can create the space and convene a network of Councillors to raise awareness of digital poverty at scale and signpost to mitigating actions. Cllr. Gibbons called on BCS to work with her and other elected officials to establish this network, and BCS is looking at how it can advance this with the DPA and other partners.
Cllr. Gibbons added that this sort of partnership was central to their approach to service delivery, as was having a clear strategy: "We did create a new digital strategy, and digital inclusion was very much a part of it. I think a lot of what I have to focus on now is getting courses designed for people's needs, such as one-to-one support and training, largely done through volunteers and working with partner organisations."
Matching skilled professionals with those who need help
There were contributions from those watching the webinar. Mike Skells used to work for a major bank and he was involved in a mentoring scheme for disadvantaged children in the East End of London taking A Level Computing. He said one issue was that many professionals like himself would willingly give their time and resources to schools, but at the moment, there was no one-stop shop that could match up pupils who needed help with those willing to give it.
Freddie said he completely understood, and BCS members were looking at solutions: "One of the things we want to champion is the concept of BCS member in the community. Or if I were to make it even broader -just a technology professional in the community that can be a digital support professional to help anybody who needs help."
The human touch
Another contributor, Jennifer, said she missed the human connection when applying for her disabled son's blue badge for parking. Previously, she would get a call from her local council, during which she could discuss any other issues about her son that were on her mind. But now she applies through a central government portal and misses the human interaction: "It's very faceless. There's nobody to talk to. And it's missing something, and I'm wondering whether we need to listen to those people who say they would prefer face-to-face. Find out why they want face-to-face and not digital and incorporate those things into the digital offer so they would see a benefit to it."
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In response, Elizabeth said the DPA was more than getting everyone online, regardless. She said: "We're about making sure people can access services, many of which are now online, when, where and how they, how they need to.
"There will always be some things that are better done face-to-face. There will always be some things better done on the phone or by post, particularly for those millions of people experiencing digital poverty.
"It's also tough changing from how you've always done something, particularly if you're older and you've been doing something the same way for the last 70 or 80 years."
Freddie added: "What is key from listening to everybody is that we should not assume that it is a binary decision - that we are just going from one world to another. In some situations, we've got to recognise that you will probably need both, but it's about achieving that balance over time."