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Can we, will we pay the bill for digital inclusion?



Is the UK government finally getting on top of the problem of 'digital inclusion'?

This month, the Cabinet Office brought together more than 40 public, private and voluntary sector organisations - from Age UK to e-on, Google and the BBC - to sign a UK Digital Inclusion Charter.

The move formed part of a new national digital inclusion strategy which aims to reduce the number of people who are offline by 25% by 2016, and a further 25% every two years after that. This will bring 2.7m more people online by 2016, with 8.1m remaining offline; a further 2m online by 2018, leaving about 6m; a further 1.5m by 2020, leaving about 4.5m; and so on.

Together, the charter partners have pledged funding and support for a range of digital skills projects aimed at those currently being excluded.

The supermarket chain Asda is to run free advice sessions on going online and using the internet in 60 of its stores, supported by one of the main national players in digital inclusion: Tinder Foundation, which manages a network of 5,000 neighbourhood UK Online Centres. Mobile network provider EE is to launch a National Techy Tea Party Day in its stores on 9 September, offering volunteer support for those seeking help with their digital skills. And Lloyds Bank has launched a "Business Digital Index" to measure the digital skills of small businesses and community organisations, helping them assess what support they need.

All these initiatives are welcome, though some might ask - why are private firms stepping in to offer what seem like public services, more commonly offered in libraries or housing centres? Clearly, the firms involved feel there will be branding and marketing benefit, from feel-good factor to bringing potential new customers to their stores.

This may not be much of a problem, since in tackling digital inclusion we may not mind much if a few more people decide to shop in one supermarket than another. There will be a need for vigilance however to ensure that significant amounts of genuinely good and genuinely new digital inclusion work are taking place in exchange for any marketing platforms.

Other major national digital inclusion projects in the pipeline include the forthcoming "assisted digital" programme to help people who are not online to use digital government services, this time backed by £50m of funding from the Cabinet Office. Work sought will range from public internet access points to individualised training and home equipment support.

A series of partnerships or consortia will form to bid to run the programme, likely to involve organisations such as Tinder Foundation; Citizens Advice; high street retailers such as those signed up to the digital inclusion charter; and charities.

This is significant funding, but there has been a slight delay. After publishing a Prior Information Notice in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU) last year and holding a discussion day with potential suppliers, the Cabinet Office announced it would be delaying a full contract notice in OJEU from Autumn 2013 to "early in 2014", and is now simply saying a notice will appear "later this year". It said the delay was "in response to [suppliers'] input on what information [they] would need to apply to be on a framework, and to design assisted digital support".

Separately last year, the Big Lottery Fund (BIG) announced its own investment of up to £15m in up to three national partnership projects to build 'Basic Online Skills' of individuals and organisations. BIG is developing the funding programme with the national digital inclusion charity Go ON UK, which morphed out of former government-funded project 'Race Online 2012'.

This month, BIG announced seven applicants have been shortlisted as possible recipients of the money, and encouraged other bodies to present themselves as possible partners to these groups ahead of a final decision.

These included national social housing provider Affinity Sutton for e-Street UK, a three-year project to embed digital inclusion support in social housing provision, in partnership with 65 social housing providers and others; as well as projects led by Age UK; BT; Family Fund; Homeless Link; RNIB; and Tinder Foundation.

A third potential national source of digital inclusion funding set to appear over the next couple of years is linked to the "Local Support Services Framework" (LSSF). This is a planned work programme aimed at ensuring claimants of Universal Credit - the new unified benefits system which most people will have to claim online - will have both the Internet access and IT skills support they need.

The government plans to roll out Universal Credit across the UK by 2017, with pilots already underway. Minister for Welfare Reform Lord Freud wrote to all local authorities last year with a pledge to build the LSSF "to develop new opportunities for testing and trialling local support services over the next 18 months... Our aim is then to produce a fully updated LSSF document in autumn 2014." The letter acknowledges that "delivery partnerships" will be needed to deliver the framework, but does not specify what types of body might take part, though the usual suspects are all jostling for position - UK Online Centres, Citizens Advice bureaux, the Post Office and high street shops.

According to the government, the aim of LSSF is "to enable a more holistic and joined up service for claimants at a local level, which builds on the support already provided by DWP, councils and other partners, such as housing providers, charities and social care services." It acknowledges some new funding will be needed for this, but has not yet put a figure on it, and also says that part of the project will include aligning existing funding streams such as council digital inclusion spending and Jobcentre Plus budgets.

Taking a step back and looking at all this in the round, will it be enough?

Thanks to a report published earlier this year by Tinder Foundation and Go ON UK, based on work by economist Catherine Mcdonald, the UK does for the first time have an estimate of the amount of money that would need to be spent across all sector - public, private and voluntary - to completely close the digital divide.

This figure - admittedly described by the report's author as likely to be a conservative one - is £875 million to train absolutely everyone in the UK aged 16 or over in basic digital skills by the year 2020 - so about £150m a year for six years.

The estimate included an assumption that many people would gain more digital skills between now and 2020 even if no further action is taken, but that there would still be a gap of some 6.2m people without basic digital skills in 2020.

The eagle-eyed among readers will notice the government's new strategy does not go as far as eliminating this gap altogether: under the new plans, there will still be an estimated 4.5 million people offline in 2020, 1.7m fewer than there would be if the government took no action (according to the Mcdonald report) but 4.5m more than if the full £875m could be found.

Overall therefore it is clear that while a fair amount of new funding is going to be found by the government and private sector over the next few years, it is currently set to fall well short of what would be needed to close the digital inclusion gap in our society altogether.

In times of austerity, this might be about as good as it gets, but the Mcdonald report did also suggest there would be a sound business case for finding all the money, in terms of boosting the UK's modern, digital service economy. Maybe that economic boost will have to wait, as well.
Pictured: Are all UK citizens in the digital frame? A woman holds an iPad to view people in a government office.
UK Digital Inclusion Charter:
Government Digital Inclusion Strategy:
Assisted Digital blog:
Big Lottery Fund Basic Online Skills funding programme:
Universal Credit Local Support Services - update:
A leading digital nation by 2020: calculating the cost of delivering online skills for all:

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