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Universal digital skills? A snip at £875m

24/02/14

Universal digital skills? A snip at £875m.The phrase 'digital inclusion' is often bandied around in policy circles with little specificity: meaning different things at different times to different people, and generally without anything as mundane as a cost attached to it.

As of today, however, inclusion has a price tag: £875 million to train everyone in the UK aged 16 or over in basic digital skills by the year 2020. And that means absolutely everyone, regardless of age, ability or inclination.

The figure is published in a new report by economist Catherine Mcdonald, former value for money auditor at the National Audit Office. It was commissioned by the UK's two main digital inclusion bodies, Tinder Foundation - manager of the national network of UK Online centres - and Go ON UK, the charity led by Martha Lane Fox to wire up the nation.

While the figure is acknowledged by the report's author to be likely to be a conservative one, she told inclusion activists at the study's launch at the House of Commons today it was the most robust made so far in this field and underpins a compelling case for digital inclusion spending by all three sectors of the UK economy: public, private and voluntary.

Aspects of what might be termed a business case include an estimated £63bn boost to UK GDP if the UK were to become a 'leading digital economy', according to consultants Booz & Co, she said.
"And having everybody online is part of that."

The definition of 'basic online skills' used in McDonald's calculation was developed by Go ON UK. It breaks down into four areas: using email; browsing the web and using a search engine; sharing personal information in online transactions, for example in applying for a job, buying something online or using a public service online; and keeping safe online, including tackling spam email and evaluating which websites to trust.

And yes, the estimate was based on giving everyone those skills, she said: every single one of the 11 million people over 16, or 22% of the adult population who currently lack them.

"We did not want to categorise any group of people and write them off", McDonald said. "This includes those who have never used it, those who have used it and given up, and also those who have used it by proxy - there are many things that are better to use yourself. We could think of job seeking, or a different example might be dating sites."

The estimate included an assumption that a significant number of people will gain more digital skills between now and 2020 even if no further action is taken, she said. Current skills programmes would continue such as the 'Learn my way' courses taking place at UK Online Centres funded to the tune of £30m by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

More people would also come online as a result of ever cheaper and more usable digital consumer devices coming on the market, and more and more public and private sector orgnaisasitons putting their services online, McDonald said.

Even taking this into account however, there will still be a gap of some 6.2m people without basic digital skills in 2020, she said. The cost of training each of these people had been worked out as between £47 and £319 depending on their individual needs, leading to the total sum of £875m of investment needed over six years - ideally, starting this year.

McDonald acknowledged that her figure was likely to be a conservative estimate, not least because the definition of 'basic' digital skills requirements is expanding all the time, as new technologies appear.

Nevertheless it is the first robust model of its kind, albeit one that leads to a new obvious question: who should pay?

The figure could be split across three sectors, she said: government, the private sector and the voluntary sector (the latter as cash or time volunteered as equivalent).

If split equally, this would come to £292m or £50m a year over six years for each sector, although government might decide it should take on a greater share than the others given the huge potential economic benefits for the UK. Benefits could include helping the UK become a leading digital eocnomy and helping to shift more government services online - a move which the Government Digital Services has estimated could save the UK public sector £1.7bn a year, McDonald said.

"Returns on taxpayer investment could be very quick".

The economic arguments for finding the money are "overwhelming", Graham Walker, chief executive of Go ON UK, told the report launch.

"The government already spends £4bn a year on adult skills provision - if could have a fraction of that as a share for government, it would cover it.

"Then we already have several companies supporting Go ON UK which have committed £1m each: if we had all the FTSE 250 committing money it could reach the kind of figure we are talking about."

As for whether it is realistic to expect every single person to acquire basic digital skills, Walker said that some countries such as Estonia and Norway were already close to reaching universal access.

"I dont hear excuses in Norway - people saying 'some people don't want to', 'some people are feckless', 'some people are too old'. It's time we stopped making excuses in the UK."

Pictured: Catherine Mcdonald, the report's author, at today's House of Commons launch
A leading digital nation by 2020: calculating the cost of delivering online skills for all: www.tinderfoundation.org/nation2020

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