Why we must all mind the digital exclusion gap

18 October 2023

Millions of UK citizens are still unable to access the internet in 2023 – and that’s a challenge for us all. Opencast user research consultant Clare Welch explains why it’s vital for those delivering new digital services to address the issue of digital exclusion.

Ensuring technology is done in the right way matters. At Opencast, achieving this involves understanding how users interact with the technology solutions that we help to design and build with our clients and other stakeholders. It also means understanding the wider service and the context. That context has to include access to the internet – and more importantly the lack of it, because of digital exclusion.

But what does digital exclusion actually mean? And, why should we care?

‘Digital exclusion’ means different things to different people and there are many ways to define it. The Good Things Foundation charity says that digital exclusion “typically refers to sections of the population not being able to use the internet in ways that are needed to participate fully in modern society.”

The focus here is on access, but other factors – affordability, digital ability and confidence – can also play a part in causing digital exclusion. It could be a short-term, circumstantial exclusion for some, but an enduring barrier for others.

One thing for sure is that the digital divide – meaning the gap between those who have access to technology and those who do not – is at risk of worsening if the businesses that create technical products and services do not care.

During the pandemic, we all saw schools and offices shift to people’s homes and it quickly became clear that those without devices or access to the internet were at risk of being left behind or worse still forgotten.

In the context of the current cost-of-living crisis, affordability is without doubt another major factor. According to research this year by Citizens Advice, “as many as one million people cut off their broadband in the last year as the cost-of-living crisis left them unable to afford internet access”. This has particularly hit people receiving universal credit.

With many essential services already online, it's wrong to see access to technology and the internet as a nice-to-have or just for those who can afford it. It’s a job. It’s access to education and essential services. It’s a lifeline for many. It’s a necessity.

Despite the pressing need to ensure that people are not excluded from society, it seems clear that digital inclusion has not been prioritised enough. The opening words to a new House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee report on digital exclusion are damning.

“The Government aspires to global digital leadership. But it does not have a credible strategy to tackle digital exclusion. This matters. Everything from housing and healthcare resources to banking and benefit systems is shifting online at an unprecedented rate. By failing to take decisive action the Government is allowing millions of citizens to fall behind.”

It’s a bleak opening to a report that criticises the UK government for not doing enough to ensure that everyone is brought along in a world that's increasingly digital first and, in some instances, exclusively online.

There is an increasingly blurred distinction between the ‘virtual’ and ‘physical’ world: and for many in the UK, our reality and engagement with the world is hybrid. Our money transfers in bytes, our identity is stored in databases and our health records are digitised. Many now consider the offline route simply as an alternative to online first.

The House of Lords exclusion report estimates that 1.7 million households have no mobile or broadband internet at home – and Lloyds Bank’s 2022 Consumer Digital Index suggests that digital exclusion is worse still. As the UK’s largest study of digital and financial lives, Lloyds reports that around 2.7 million people cannot do any of the 26 life tasks that they have identified.

“Essential digital skills for life are the tasks/skills required to be digitally proficient in day-to-day life,” says Lloyds, including ‘transacting’ defined as “you can fill in forms online to access the services you need (eg voting registration, ordering repeat prescriptions, booking doctor appointments, booking train tickets or beauty appointments)”.

The Lloyds digital skills for life list includes important services that people are locked out of, often due to multiple reasons and no fault of their own.

Illustration of two people reaching out to two clouds
The digital divide is at risk of worsening

Global imperative on inequality

There is a wider global imperative to reduce inequality worldwide. Goal 10 of the United Nations sustainable development sets a target to reduce “inequality within and among countries”.

According to the World Economic Forum, this can only be truly achieved if digital exclusion and our online usage is considered as part of these ambitions. When a service is built exclusively online, it will inevitably be inaccessible for some.

It’s important to acknowledge here also that some people choose not to be online. With technology like AI becoming more popular, and online security causing concern, some may choose to remove themselves from the digital world or not use it at all in the first place.

Digital exclusion is complex, but is something everyone involved in digital provision needs to consider to ensure that inequalities do not increase for those who do not have access to technology or internet access.

Now more than ever, it’s important that we acknowledge the importance of both online and offline solutions. And continue to work to do better. Introducing technology alone will not work. It involves education, bringing people along and building trust.

As the Good Things Foundation puts it, “digital inclusion is a social issue”.

As a provider of digital solutions, particularly to citizens via our work with government partners, digital inclusion has to matter to us.

At Opencast, we take a user-centred approach to our work. Working with government sector clients, our teams pride themselves in upholding the Service Standard, a set of 14 principles that government sector services are assessed against. Standard 5, requiring that we "make sure everyone can use the service", places importance on meeting accessibility standards, including both online and offline parts.

Opencast is dedicated to making a “positive impact on society through solutions that are simpler, more sustainable and fairer for all”. Within our work, we do this by:

  • taking a user-centred approach to understand what value we can bring to both businesses and their users
  • ensuring that services are accessible and legally compliant by using our knowledge of the latest web content accessibility guidelines and the Service Standard
  • exploring both online and offline journeys to ensure that all users can access services
  • researching with participants both online and offline to capture different user journeys and understand in a holistic way how people are using some of the country’s biggest services
  • diversifying user research to ensure that we include participants who access services in different ways.

As well as this work to ensure that the technology we help to deliver is inclusive, Opencast has an active community programme that supports digital inclusion – including a new ‘rehoming’ programme that sees MacBook laptops donated to give local schoolchildren access to computers.

The constant emergence of new technologies means that the parameters and definition of what it means to be digitally excluded are forever changing – and we must continue to learn and adapt with these changes. The cost of not acting to include people in digital services is too high.

Lloyd's Bank graph detailing why people are choosing not to use the internet in the last 3 months. 'I'm worried about my privacy and security is at the top with 62% of people giving this as a reason
Lloyds index: top reasons people choose not to use the internet

As a provider of digital solutions, particularly to citizens via our work with government partners, digital inclusion has to matter to us

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