Why digital inclusion isn't IT's problem

Date Published

14/06/2021

Reading time

5 mins read

Author

Alison Hughes

Digital services have been progressing across every sector of society for the past decade.

But in 2020 we saw the speed of digital adoption rapidly increase, with the pandemic forcing innovation on a scale that’s never been seen before. Local authorities have witnessed a huge shift, with employees working hard to ensure that people can contact their council quickly and easily on whatever channel suits them best.

Traditionally, the burden for implementing successful digital transformation has fallen on IT departments, but as we build on the momentum we’ve seen during lockdowns, this is set to change. Citizens, especially those who are most vulnerable, must be firmly at the centre of all digitisation plans. Councils will have to utilise the different types of skills across all departments to make digital inclusion a reality. Rather than sectioning off digital engagement, we must recognise its importance across all areas of our lives, developing this vital tool for a more successful and cohesive society.

Digital exclusion

According to Catherine Mills, Head of Digital Social Inclusion at social change charity, Good Things Foundation, there are still nine million people in the UK who can’t use the internet. Around seven million don’t have access to WiFi or data at home, despite the fact that more than 80% of jobs now require digital skills. “There’s also a very strong connection between digital exclusion and poverty. People on low incomes are less likely to have digital skills than those on high incomes,” she explains. A blueprint produced by the foundation states that an investment of £130m will be needed over the next four years to support the ‘Great Digital Catch Up’. This will help more people to develop the digital skills they need to succeed and feel included in today’s society, from online banking to applying for jobs and support. Meanwhile the charity has recently launched a Data Poverty Lab, which will commission people with lived experience of digital exclusion to explore options that might be effective, such as social prescribing and data donation. “The digital divide has been made worse by the pandemic and can vary based on location,” says Mills. “In the North East, for example, 53% of the population are digitally excluded, compared to 35% of the population in the South East.” Good Things Foundation wants to introduce a strategy for making digital inclusion work for everyone, no matter where they live or what skills they currently have. “It’s just as much of a social priority as it is for systems and IT,” she adds.

 Collaboration

Alison Hughes, Assistant Director of ICT, Digital and Customer at Liverpool City Council and a Vice President for the Society for Innovation, Technology and Modernisation (SOCITM) stresses the importance of working collaboratively to ensure we build back in a way that’s digitally inclusive. In Liverpool, Hughes’ local area, ‘Get Connected’ is one of 10 key recovery pledges for the council. “The pledge is about providing stable internet connections for excluded families and asking partners in both the public and private sector to sponsor and support this. Access to a stable broadband connection should be a standard utility like water or electricity. It will become even more important as an economic issue as we continue to see growth in online jobs and remote working.” She adds that it’s vital for councils to understand the needs of their ‘offline’ clients to determine how they can be better supported. 

For Kate Fitzsimons, Director of Business Development at Capita, diversification will be essential for delivering digitally inclusive services. “Councils will need to build strong, productive partnerships with other organisations in the public and third sectors to share data and collectively use assets to deliver a much better outcome for citizens,” she explains. In addition to gaining necessary funding for technology projects, these partnerships can help communities to share their assets and facilities, learn from best practice and come together on digital inclusion programmes. By understanding what other areas have done and where they’ve succeeded, authorities can formulate their own strategies, tailored to the local population. 

During the lockdowns last year, Liverpool City Council was one of the local authorities to implement a cloud-based contact centre. While Hughes acknowledges the step may have been high risk given the importance of the contact centre during the pandemic, it allowed the council to be more agile, and improve its customer data. “It meant there was a range of different channels to interact with customers, and the centre provided lots of useful new features,” she says. “I believe strongly that information and communications technology is a key service which is underpinning so many things that are happening in local government. We need to focus on the core elements of that and how we leverage it.”

Tech for the people

No matter how digitally savvy the population is, council services will only be used if they’re truly built to serve local citizens. Chris Melia, Customer Experience Director for Capita Local Public Services, argues that people are seeking more efficient council services, as well as greater accessibility. “From better automated lines to improved online journeys, providing a great customer experience has become the main priority for many councils this year. People are realising that without getting the customer experience right, citizens aren’t going to use the technology that they’ve implemented so they’re not going to see the efficiencies anyway,” he says. “We need our services to be available to all customers on accessible channels, supported by suitable investment in technologies. We also need to look at ways that we can use customer data to get actionable insights that are going to drive change and make decision-making far easier.” While this may not be the most cost-effective solution in the short-term for councils, it is one that’s most likely to result in success.

Although Melia adds it was a “massive” challenge for local authorities to bring automated systems to the nine million UK residents who don’t have access to the internet, it is possible to manage this and offer different levels of support. And while additional resources must be used to ensure nobody gets left out, Melia says organisations are also starting to explore multi-channel customer experience platforms to engage more digitally savvy residents. “We need to work together to engage with people who have a wide range of digital skills and internet access. We must tailor services so they can be adapted to people’s different needs.” 

5 ways to make digital inclusion a reality

  • Use data analytics to understand the communities you’re serving, so that services can be tailored to benefit people
  • Carry out a skills audit within your team to make sure they’re ready to implement new technology, and the community is ready to accept changes.
  • Understand citizens’ expectations and ensure that they receive the best possible customer experience, continually learning from other local authorities’ experiences and successes.
  • Build partnerships across public, private and third sector organisations to work collaboratively to deliver change.
  • Seek funding and investment to boost digital skills within the community, and support the most vulnerable residents.
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Written by

Alison Hughes

IT lead, Liverpool City Council

Catherine Mills

Head of Digital Social Inclusion, The Good Things Foundation

Chris Melia

Customer Experience Director, Capita

Kate Fitzsimmon

Business Development Director, Capita

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