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Solace blog

16th September 2016

Put your own lifejacket on first

Does digital inclusion really matter?

We’re about to embark on the next stage of the digital revolution with automation starting to be rolled out at scale. In the next few years, the focus on user experience and service design at the front end will be matched with the ability to automate complex processes behind the scenes making larger scale transformations of services quicker and cheaper. The technology is here now – it’s just getting up a head of steam on the adoption curve.

How does this link to digital inclusion?

Put simply…the historic analogy of digital inclusion might have been that we need to give everyone a pen- but that doesn’t mean that everyone can write. Digital inclusion can and should be about more than simply helping people to fill in a form. By embracing the opportunities we have to create digital literacy and not simply inclusion we are better able to equip people for the changes that are happening around them.

Most digital inclusion strategies are focused on how to help the 14% of people who are not currently online at home. Anyone who is currently contemplating a digital by default strategy or any significant drive to channel shift to online services knows that there are pockets of exclusion that need to be addressed if we want to ensure that services remain available for all.

Digital exclusion is not what it used to be, however – issues of access and affordability are less of a factor for most people. Instead, the focus needs to be on literacy, motivation, and trust. Put another way – we have failed to make the digital age relevant for a significant minority of people. And now we are in danger of making this worse by automating the jobs of people who currently act as human robots.

How can we relegate digital exclusion to the past?

If we focus on this question of relevance then this becomes a matter of digital literacy rather than exclusion – asking ourselves whether citizens [and our staff] have the skills that they need to thrive as members of a digital and networked society?

Digital literacy isn’t about being able to programme an app or code a website (although these skills are much easier than people think). It’s about having a digital mindset and the ability to engage with new technologies with systematic confidence. Doteveryone estimated in 2015 that 23% of the adult population lack one or more basic digital skills (1).

Isn’t this somebody else’s problem?

Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy fans may recall that when a problem is so big and so obvious, it becomes almost impossible to see it at all- and becomes somebody else’s problem. Digital literacy is of profound importance to future economic growth –but will continue to be a ‘SEP’ unless we can see ways to wire digital literacy into programmes of work that solve this year’s problems. We have to make digital inclusion a positive by-product of other activity and drive more benefits out of investing in people in this way. The obvious candidate for this will be any significant channel shift or digital by default programme we are undertaking where we already know we have to address digital inclusion challenges in order to switch off analogue services, but you could start with any major technology project where you are already thinking that there will be significant risk of resistance to change.

What if we stopped treating digital inclusion as a separate and contained programme or somebody else’s problem? Shouldn’t we instead focus on ensuring all our staff are digitally literate and able to advocate and support their customers and citizens to learn these new skills? In other sectors this kind of approach has seen huge benefits in terms of increased and accelerated channel shift – have a look at the Barclay’s Digital Eagles programme to see evidence of this.

Where to start?

Your flight attendant on your summer holiday will have probably said something like ‘put your own lifejacket on first before helping others’. Digital inclusion can’t be about teaching people to fill in forms – it needs to be about making sure that our citizens feel relevant and connected to the huge shifts that are happening in our society and this can and should start with our staff. If we don’t start with our staff- they will not be able to help others no matter how digitally literate or excluded.

(1) https://doteveryone-prod.s3-eu-west-

By Rob Kenyon, Director of Community Services, Thanet District Council and Solace Deputy Spokesperson on Digital Leadership