Digital councils and social inclusion

Written by Rachel Neaman, Campus Director at Doteveryone

The UK is facing a major digital skills crisis.

For those of us who own a smartphone, use apps and social media, shop and bank online – and see others all around us doing the same – this may come as a surprise.

But the reality is that we have a technology skills shortage at all levels, from the very basic right up to the most advanced skills.

Across the UK, 12.6 million adults – almost one in four – and 1.2 million small and medium-sized businesses lack the basic skills needed to send an email, apply for a job, or shop online. At the same time, businesses are telling us that 85 per cent of technical positions are difficult to fill because of a lack of specialist skills.

Having digital skills improves a whole range of outcomes, including employability, financial inclusion, social mobility, and better health and wellbeing. We know that online households are on average £744 a year better off. Proportionately, lower-income households save even more. Those with an annual income of less than £15,000 save on average £516 per year, equivalent to six weekly family shops.

For organisations, digital skills improve profitability, efficiency, productivity, employee engagement and customer satisfaction. Once in work, people with good digital skills earn between 3 and 10 per cent more than those without. But without digital skills it is almost impossible to find or apply for a job.

To ensure the UK adult population is fit for the digital age would cost £1.65 billion up to 2025 but the present value would be a staggering £14.3 billion – a return of almost £10 for every £1 spent.

So what does all this mean for local government? Councils need to find cheaper and more effective ways of delivering services to their residents. At the same time, users of digital technology now expect to interact with local government in the same way they do in other areas of their life – wherever and whenever they choose, in a personalised way.

In London, Hammersmith and Fulham’s online self-service portal has saved £1.15 million annually, with 70 per cent of households registered. Barking and Dagenham has achieved a 100 per cent digital shift for benefit claims, reducing processing time by 30 days and saving £617,000 annually.

Back-office changes can also save councils money while increasing the digital know-how of staff. Hillingdon saved £750,000 a year through moving to Google Apps and Shropshire Council’s Project WIP open source website service saved £204,000 over an initial five-year period.

But councils cannot afford to ignore those who are unable to transact with them this way. Ironically, the highest users of public services are those least likely to be digitally capable. To help local councils and other organisations, Doteveryone produced the first ever UK digital exclusion heatmap (see www.doteveryone.org.uk/resources/heatmap) which shows a clear correlation between digital exclusion and other social factors, with those in lower socio-economic groups, retired, unemployed, in poor health and less educationally qualified at greatest risk. By addressing digital exclusion we can also help address social exclusion.

Doteveryone also created an online resource centre and interactive platform called Go ON Local (see https://local.go-on.co.uk/), that supports organisations and individuals looking to help people with their digital skills. We’re using this platform in community projects in Croydon and Lewisham to test, learn and share new ways of reaching those most in need of support. Our Go ON North East and Go ON North West regional projects also highlighted how concerted cross-sector effort across a whole region can dramatically increase levels of digital skills.

It’s now time to scale up that good practice and ensure digital councils become the norm. As they embrace digitisation, councils have not only a real opportunity but a clear responsibility to support those most at risk of digital exclusion. By understanding the risk factors affecting their residents, local government can play its part in addressing the digital skills crisis.

‘This article first appeared in the Local Government Association’s first magazine – see www.local.gov.uk/first’,

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