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Report of the Digital Government Review

Skills: the promise of digital inclusion

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Simply stating the advantages of the Internet or providing a single lesson does not address digital inclusion. It requires explanation of the benefits of the Internet, time from educators; it requires physical space and hardware to perform training on; it requires continued support, sustained investment and strategic thinking.

The Tinder Foundation and Go-ON UK jointly commissioned a report “A Leading Digital Nation By 2020” [15] which built on a 2013 report showing that 21% of the adult population lack basic digital skills and stated that on current trends this figure will drop to 11% by 2020. The report determined that incremental funding is needed to take this figure lower. Countries such as Norway have already reduced this figure to as low as 2%.

The current UK government has claimed that 10% of the UK adult population, 5.1 million people by 2020, may never be able to gain basic digital skills. We have a higher belief than the current government in the potential of the UK population to gain basic digital skills.

It may be impossible to reach 100%, but we should target as close to that figure as we can. We should aim to be as digital a nation as we can be, for there will be benefits at every level: to the government; to citizens; to the nation and economy as a whole.

In order to achieve this transformation and move beyond the writing-off of a tenth of our population, government must build a detailed understanding of:

  • People’s digital skills and level of access [16] broken down by demographic segments, building on work in this area by the ONS [17]
  • What activities are underway to improve digital skills or to provide access for those who need Assisted Digital services
  • Which public services, both centrally and locally [18], are used by people at which level of the digital inclusion scale
  • The current rating of each digital public service that already exists on the digital inclusion scale and the level of Assisted Digital support that exists
  • How all of the above break down by regions, local authorities, socio-economic status, gender, etcetera.

This research will not identify individuals. It is intended to understand what the private sector would term “customer segments”: practical estimates that will be used to inform and guide decision-making, rather than simply creating another large unused database of information.

Importantly, much of this research is occurring already. For example, local authorities forming part of the Universal Credit Pathfinder Scheme performed detailed research into benefits claimants in their areas. Organisations such as Go ON UK, the Tinder Foundation, the BBC or the Oxford Internet Institute have also performed detailed research on these issues. The various organisations delivering basic skills training (for example UK Online Centres) will also be gathering evidence in the course of their work.

Gradually bringing this data together in a common format and opening it up for use outside of government, particularly the segmentation, will be a key enabler for all suppliers of digital services – while also creating a more informed public debate. It will help us understand which activities work, and which don’t.

It will require a programme of work to bring together the current research into a consistent and comparable format. The research should be regularly updated to guide and support the activities of the multiple organisations looking to tackle the challenge of digital inclusion. It will help provide everybody with the opportunity to enjoy digital technologies’ benefits.

We do not yet have this research, of course, but we can still work from initial estimates of the cost of inclusion. The Tinder Foundation report, for example, builds from practical experience of the costs of inclusion to determine that incremental government funding of £292m will be required over the period 2015-2020.

The report recommends that this figure be matched by the private and voluntary sector to make a total figure of £875m over this period. It also states that funding of this level will allow the country to get as close as possible to 100% inclusion with basic digital skills.

We embrace the task set out in these figures. Our recommended approach to funding government’s share of delivering digital skills to citizens, the estimated £292m over the next parliament, is to use the future savings created by digital service delivery to support currently excluded citizens

This is a simple model where gradual funding can create significant benefits for all. When government sets out the mission (“to be the most digital nation we can be”) and funds its share, then we would also expect more input from the private sector and more time to be provided by volunteers. This will provide the full sum.

If we increase the percentage of digitally included by 10% we further estimate that the implementation costs will be recovered by year four of an incoming government.

Figure 4 shows that the net present value (NPV) of benefits is positive from year four, with continued savings of £189 million per year after year four. This estimate uses the government’s own figures for the benefits of their Digital by Default strategy scaled up for the higher level of participation in digital services. More details for these calculations can be found in Appendix B.

Figure 4 : Cumulative spend, benefits to central government and net present value for digital inclusion activities

Figure 4 : Cumulative spend, benefits to central government and net present value for digital inclusion activities

While this calculation can alone justify government expenditure, it is important to note that it actually significantly underestimates the full economic benefits of increasing digital inclusion. This is because it is only considers the reduced cost of delivering central government services, ignoring all other additional potential savings and advantages.

For example, a 2013 report by Goss Interactive [19] on the opportunities for Channel Shift across local government and the NHS estimated potential savings to government of £3 billion a year. Increasing inclusion by 10% would, on this basis alone, save £300 million a year.

We could go further still and try to calculate the benefits to people, their employers, small businesses and the economy through access to non-government digital services; of greater participation in democracy as it increasingly uses digital approaches; cheaper online products and services; improved job prospects and a more highly skilled and competitive digital nation. See Appendix B for more details on these items.

Such figures are by their nature speculative – but what is clear that, over time, funding digital inclusion is an investment whose yield will greatly outstrip its costs. It will reduce outlay on benefits and increase tax revenues for government. It will improve businesses and the economy. It will improve society and people’s lives. It is the right thing to do.

Digital inclusion is not a one-off activity. It is not addressed by, say, giving a single lesson when someone applies for a passport or a pension payment. Unless people regularly use skills they will lose them. Our aim, then, must be to generate repeated activities and reasons to use digital that will embed skills in those currently excluded individuals: by building an evidence-led programme that co-ordinates stakeholders across the sector, and that energizes volunteers; by placing money “hyperlocally” with evidence-led sensitivity to the specific needs of particular areas; by using mass campaigns created by the likes of the Tinder Foundation or Go ON UK; and by repeatedly demonstrating the opportunities and benefits created by excellent digital services from any source or sector.

To be clear, central government should not be mandating one particular method for increasing digital inclusion. Rather, government should be investing and supporting. It should be facilitating conversations and encouraging collaboration between the practitioners who have been establishing best practice for many years. And it should be maintaining the evidence base to ensure that advances in inclusion are indeed taking place: i.e. it should scrupulously measure outcomes.

This approach will be uncomfortable to many in central government. But it is only through approaches like this, not old-style top-down command and control, that government will develop a digital approach adequate to society’s most complex problems.

We can create significant benefits for people and society by tackling digital inclusion. It is achievable and it will yield results. This is a sensible choice.

Recommendation 4

Priority: High

Government should lift its ambitions for inclusion and build a programme to provide digital skills to an additional 4.9million people during the next parliament. This will improve people’s lives and create over £189million in annual savings, on top of larger benefits across government and society as a whole.

“It will take all sectors working together in partnership to tackle what is a very complex and multi-layered challenge. Technology is only one part of the solution: motivation, education, reinforcement and role modelling are all required to tackle digital inclusion.” – Large Company

“Focussing on the neediest in society, the ones required to fill out most forms most often is not merely caring and compassionate; it will also deliver by far the biggest per head savings” – Small Company

[15] It is important to note that the this report starts from a baseline of 21% excluded whilst the current estimate is 19%. This means that the cost estimates are likely to err on the conservative side.
[16] For the sake of simplicity we have used the term people here, many of these people also run SMEs and their businesses are being adversely impacted by the move to digital without accompanying support for skills. See the LITRG submission here:
[17] The current ONS analysis is available here:—households-and-individuals/2014/index.html. It should be noted this research tracks offline/online rather than segmenting by level of skill. Research that encompasses both access and skills will be required.
[18] Authoritative lists of public services, for example the ESD list will assist with this
[19] The 2013 report Public Sector Channel Shift strategies is available at As this report was going to press the latest report was about to be published at We expect that this new report will have increased figures.

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