Can creating a single centralised support system deliver digital inclusion?

Written by Julia Chippendale, Head of Business Development at We Are Group.

I recently joined a panel at the Digital Leaders Impact Summit talking about the need to support communities to be digitally included. My fellow panellists were Vicky Burgess, Work and Skills Officer, the lead for digital inclusion at Rochdale Borough Council and Moses Seitler, CEO at Screen Share UK. We discussed the challenges faced in ensuring no one is left behind as a result of educational, digital or financial poverty and the role we are all playing in ensuring digital inclusion.

17% of the community is not using the internet, and given that the world is only now practically only underpinned by digital infrastructure, that is a pretty startling and sobering statistic. Some people are, therefore, excluded from the very life opportunities (health, education, and finance opportunities, to name but a few) that everybody should be entitled to, to live, let alone thrive.

The advantages of digital inclusion are evident, especially amid the current cost-of-living crisis. Increased productivity in the UK, more job opportunities, access to higher-paying employment, and finance tools enable individuals to take responsibility for their fiscal circumstances, take control of their finances and feel more financially secure.  Reports from partners like Lloyds Bank’s Consumer Digital Index 2023 and, more recently, Barclays Truth Report reinforce the benefits of digital inclusion. The Nominet Digital Youth Index also underscores the issues we face for young people.  

From a policy and regulation perspective, this has always been a cross-party agenda, and it was also encouraging to see the addition of digital inclusion as part of a proposed financial inclusion strategy from Labour’s plan for financial services, Financing Growth. 

There is a strong drive or dependency for digital inclusion across sectors, such as the NHS’s long-term health plans, with the advent of virtual wards, the consumer duty regulation for finance, transport moving to digital tickets, and the proposals for the BBC and other networks to move to digital – the PSTN switch off. All of these changes need the right support in place for people before they are implemented, a holistic approach that is not fragmented or siloed by sector.

Loads of amazing initiatives exist, and the profile of the digital inclusion crisis has increased, as exemplified in last week’s ITV’s Tonight programme, which is brilliant to see. But, the multitude of programmes and initiatives in the digital inclusion space have created a complex landscape. Simply put, individuals who are facing digital exclusion for whatever reason don’t know which way to turn. Many community-based organisations provide superb support, but signposting to these resources means that the weekly sessions they provide are stretched. This makes it challenging for individuals to access the support they need when needed, which sometimes makes people feel compromised if they can’t access resources when needed. Online support exists, but this assumes people have access to data and tech and have basic skills, and if you enter the search term “free digital skills”, there are billions of page references, making things a tad confusing for individuals with low-tech or digital confidence to say the least!

Community centres and the wider community in general play a vital role in fixing this, which is a crucial part of the solution. However, we need to be clear that it is not the only solution, and it has to be inclusive by design as a priority. We would not expect the community to have to build a ramp into a retail branch for people who need that facility. It is squarely the retailer’s responsibility to provide an equitable and accessible solution for its services. The same should be true for digital inclusion. The numbers are too large to signpost everyone who needs help in an already stretched sector, which often lacks investment and is not underpinned by efficient use of technology to drive optimum capacity and simple user journeys. In addition, people need fully inclusive services, regardless of where they live, ethnicity, standard of education, financial circumstances or mobility.

It’s also essential to consider not just the availability of digital support services but also the motivation for individuals to adopt them. Collaborative and coordinated efforts involving various sectors and stakeholders, alongside ongoing support for those in need, are crucial for sustainable and effective solutions. This is not just because people need consistent messaging regardless of whether they are in a bank, shop, government building, or community centre, but also because we have to simplify their journey and have a shared approach to the cost.

A unified investment case involving all sectors is necessary to ensure comprehensive support for digital inclusion. This approach aims to distribute costs and responsibilities equitably among stakeholders, including content providers like Netflix. This should not all be at the taxpayer’s expense.

The solution, too, needs to be equitable and include all the sector’s strengths, e.g., the strategies from Citizens Online, the Champions model from Digital Unite, the data banks, and community coordination with Good Things Foundation.

We also need to leverage the “right time and place” and our own services, using behavioural methodology to enable the shift in motivation. We have to have support in place at the point of need for the NHS, councils, retailers, banks, etc.  

We also need to leverage the “right place, right time” to provide easy access to resources and to enable a shift in motivation. We have to have support in place at the point of need for the NHS, councils, retailers, banks, etc.

We Are Group proposes establishing a streamlined support system, such as a one-stop shop for consumers, where individuals can easily access the assistance they require based on their specific needs and circumstances. This pulls together the strengths of the sectors not in competition but in harmony. This recommendation is endorsed as part of the Digital Inclusion APPG’s State of the Nation report published last year.  

Ultimately, creating a centralised brand-agnostic support system funded by all stakeholders is crucial for promoting, enabling and achieving digital inclusion and ensuring that everyone can benefit from the advancements in digital services.

Individuals will be able to navigate the digital landscape with ease and be included if we provide tailored support at the point of need. To do this, you need to effectively use #tech4good to offer the best of the sector while enabling the scale of a single-user journey and the efficiency of one operating system.

We Are Group is only one part of the solution, the bit that brings all the brilliant community support together (with the added at-home telephone service) for the customer when needed to create one user journey. This crucially enables sustainability too, as it aggregates the administration efforts, ensures optimum value for money, and provides social impact on return data.

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