Who should pay for digital services?

1 Dec 2022 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 1 Dec 2022

Pic: Unsplash

The pandemic served to emphasise the full potential of digital connectivity.

Through it we were able to access benefits, stay in touch with friends and family, work and deliver services from home, attend school lessons, fill in tax returns, shop and gain access to all manner of services when they were no longer available face to face.

The third sector in particular proved particularly flexible under pressure and its leaders are especially proud of how they were able to switch so much of what they do online and how much was saved in both time and cost by doing so.

Suddenly it became clear that fast and reliable access to the internet is an essential utility, just like water and electricity.

But that also creates challenges.

The first is how to serve those who can’t access it – and the numbers are surprisingly high. Figures from 2020 showed that 6.3% of UK adults had never used the internet with Northern Ireland having the lowest recent internet usage of 88% which translates to 168,000 people.

In the interim, digital connectivity to many rural areas has improved but there are still plenty left behind. All available evidence suggests that the worst affected are older people, those who live in rural areas, and those in poverty.

The existence of a group of people who are excluded from the services that the rest of us enjoy and increasingly rely on is a serious challenge in itself, but as members of this group are also likely to be amongst the most in need of digital services, an urgent solution is required.

There needs to be three thrusts to this.

Fast, reliable connectivity needs to be available regardless of your location; education and training has to be available to those who struggle with the technology, especially older people; and this essential service has to be affordable to all.

Fibrus’s £200 million Project Stratum should address much of the accessibility problem in Northern Ireland. That leaves helping people develop the skills and confidence to use the technology.

The Communications Consumer Panel, a statutory body which represents consumers’ interests to government concluded in a report last year: “We have consistently heard from our stakeholders that consumers across the UK lack the digital skills and confidence required to participate safely and effectively online.”

And it adds: “consumers, citizens and micro-businesses fear being targeted by scams; and poor digital experiences can negatively impact confidence and motivation.”

Therefore investment in training for all who need it is a requirement. We also have to consider how to support those with disabilities, with low literacy levels, and indeed those vulnerable people who are dependent upon others to access online services on their behalf.

Then there is the cost. As tablets and other devices replace school books, who pays for them?

And is there not now a case for providing a basic minimum level of service for everyone, with a right not to be cut off?

Do we not need to renew the debate around the British Labour Party’s pre-Election pledge, much mocked at the time, to provide free internet access to all?

The other issue is every bit as important. Many services were switched to online because of necessity. The change was not based on research and so the impacts were not known.

Addressing this is an urgent task. Anecdotal evidence from both service users and professionals is largely positive about the transformation and there is no question that digital offerings save both time and money.

But we don’t yet know how the shift to digital during the pandemic played out between age groups and between those who access it in different ways, nor is there a shared understanding of its relative cost-effectiveness or a consensus about what needs to be done to help the digitally excluded both now and in the future, as discussed above. Specifically, if we are going to rely on digital technology for health care, for example, how can we do so without exacerbating health inequalities?

Then there is the issue around safe storage and use of often highly confidential information. We saw concern in England and Wales at how its Covid-19 app was originally going to operate which suggests that without the right levels of reassurance there is a risk of a “techlash” making progress slow or impossible. Trust is key.

In healthcare, for example how will valuable data be used from apps and health tracking devices and the digitisation of patient files. Will it be sold to third parties, and if so, under what conditions?

This week the Community Foundation NI launched the findings of the Wired Up? Report which explores the current levels of digital skills and inclusion in the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise Sector in Northern Ireland.

It helps answer some other burning questions: as digital services become essential how is the sector shaping up, and what can and should it do to address digital inclusion.

To a large extent findings, which stem from a series of focus groups and an online survey, mirror other studies.

Staff and volunteers with poor digital skills tended to be older with 75.0% over fifty years of age, had higher levels of disability (25.7%) and worked or volunteered for a community group (41.7%), NI regional charity (25.0%) or local charity (19.4%).

And most participants are all too aware of digital exclusion and those most at risk from it. The survey identified the common barriers as: • poor digital skills (85.0%);

• lack of ability to afford the ongoing cost of data (82.3%); and

• lack of devices other than a mobile phone (82.0%).

Some doing what they could to reduce it by providing a combination of equipment, data and support to develop digital skills.

But worryingly more than one fifth of participants agreed or strongly agreed that their organisation was struggling to adopt a digital culture.

And funding was seen as a key challenge, with 81% reporting difficulty in getting core funding to support digital (81.8%); and 81.8% expressing frustration with short-term funding cycles making it difficult to plan ahead.

The report quite rightly stresses the cost of providing digital services, with an increasing reliance on apps with annual licence fees, and for some organisations a reliance on external IT consultants with their fees.

Unfortunately this is not balanced by any mention of the potential savings of hybrid/online services as opposed to those delivered face to face. Clearly this is going to have to be assessed when it comes to calculating the sector’s funding needs and thus determining a fair contribution from funding organisations and would impact on the report’s recommendation for the funding of digital infrastructure.

The report also calls for a digital action strategy for Northern Ireland, with associated funded action plan which is needs to address barriers to digital inclusion such as affordability, access and lack of digital skills.

Intriguingly the report also contains a proposal for improving digital support for the VCSE Sector. This would provide a range of supports including technical assistance, the ability to negotiate best value deals with third part suppliers and host a range of resources to help the sector.

Wired Up? Is an important contribution to the growing debate around how we best utilise digital communications for the benefit of all. But there’s more to be done. We need to study the effectiveness of online versus face-to-face interventions and to calculate the savings as well as the costs this represents. And we need to ensure that developments improve everyone’s lives, and not leave some even more disadvantaged than they already are.

Over and above that if we are to exchange highly confidential data online we need to give the right level of assurance that we can do this securely, and provide users with reassurance as to how information is used and stored and protected.

That injects even more urgency into the matter of who foots the bill for that. It means that all third sector organisations who hold such data need to be able to demonstrate effective cyber security, not just as a matter of good governance but as the price of continuing to exist. It may not be compulsory just yet, but it can only be a matter of time.

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