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A Scottish perspective on the digital divide

17/09/21

Tim McKay, interim deputy chair of the Accounts Commission, explains why it is making digital inclusion a key element of its reporting on local government

The global pandemic has changed how we see and use digital technology for work and learning, accessing services and connecting with others. It has also brought recognition that not everyone has the digital tools needed to participate and thrive in the modern world.

Tim McKay

Digital exclusion is experienced by those who do not have access to an appropriate digital device, an affordable or reliable internet connection or the right skills to be able to use digital tools.

While home internet access in Scotland has increased steadily in recent years, to a high of 88% (Scottish Household Survey 2019), there are inequalities in both access and use between different groups and communities.

Households in the most deprived areas or with a low income have low rates of home internet access. For internet use, generational issues persist, with older people less likely to use the internet; and for those with health conditions, both physical and mental, again much lower rates of internet use are evident.

These inequalities are stark.

The Accounts Commission has committed to focusing on equality. It underpins all our work. We recognise the unequal impact of Covid-19 and how it has amplified existing inequalities.

Need for strategy

Our Digital progess in local government paper reported how Covid-19 had exacerbated digital exclusion, recommending that councils identify and address barriers and inequalities to make sure that no one is left behind. It said that councils need to understand the needs of those experiencing digital exclusion and put a strategy in place to ensure equity and access for all citizens and communities.

Our joint report with the Auditor General for Scotland on education outcomes also highlighted how the impact of Covid-19 and the school closures it brought about have been influenced by the personal circumstances of children and young people. Those experiencing poverty and deprivation were particularly affected by their access to digital resources.

While the Scottish Government and its partners took action to address this digital gap, the report commented that it took time to implement these new measures.

We expect that councils should improve and take advantage of digital technologies to transform how they operate and deliver better outcomes for local people and communities. But no one should be left behind.

Questions for councils

For councils, having a more detailed understanding of digital exclusion will be important. How is it affecting the lives of different groups? What solutions are needed to make sure people can access and effectively use digital tools? And what does it mean for digital public services, given that many of those with a greater reliance on public services are less likely to have access to and use the internet, particularly given the closure of public libraries during the pandemic?

Citizens should be at the heart of public sector recovery and digital transformation. Making sure they can participate through having the right tools and skills is important, as is understanding their needs and involving them in service design. 

We welcome the new Scottish Government and COSLA joint digital strategy, which has signalled a commitment to tackling digital exclusion with the assertion that: “Geography, background or ability should not be barriers to getting online and benefiting from digital technology.”

We also recognise the support that individuals have received through the Connecting Scotland programme, launched in May 2020, and the support for school pupils to access devices and data packages, and the joint work with councils in working towards this.

Our future focus on digital exclusion will be twofold. We will look at how well councils understand and are addressing digital exclusion in their communities. The Accounts Commission will also look at how well councils understand the needs of individuals and communities, as well as the ways in which they are involving them in designing digital public services.

These will be key elements in our work programme going forward as part of our wider focus on inequalities.

The Accounts Commission is part of Audit Scotland and reports on the performance of the country’s local government bodies. This blog first appeared on the Audit Scotland website.

Image from Accounts Commission

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