Digital Exclusion: Is the 3rd Sector Missing the Bus?

Ross McCulloch, Director of Third Sector Lab and Founder of Be Good Be Social

digital exclusion

We are now a mere four years away from the Scottish Government’s bold ambition to make us a world-leading digital nation. The 2020 target in The Scottish Government’s ‘Digital Future’ strategy outlines four key strands: connectivity, digital public services, digital economy and digital participation. The Third Sector should be at the very forefront of this agenda, ensuring digital brings about a positive, inclusive transformation of this small country. To make that happen there’s some critical areas we need to focus on immediately. Various case studies discuss some of these issues.

Digital inclusion is about more than just broadband and basic skills

30% of Scots don’t have basic digital skills. That figure rises to 50% of people with disabilities and 60% where the individual has no qualifications. 15% of Scots have never used the internet. A Citizen’s Advice Scotland survey found 36% of their clients have never been online. These stark figures highlight a massive societal gap that needs to be addressed if we are to achieve that 2020 vision of a digital Scotland. Access to physical technology and connectivity, particularly in rural areas, are important. But for me they’re not the big issues. We need to ensure people have the basic skills needed to get online and embrace the internet. That word ‘embrace’ is key. Oxford University looked at why people choose not to use the internet in their everyday lives – 82% of respondents were ‘not interested’. Researchers found no evidence that these people are restricted from going online. They simply don’t care. For many older, disabled and unemployed people their first foray into the digital world will be mandatory online-only benefits claim forms – hardly an inspiring start. In a sense digital inclusion is more about social barriers than technological ones. Let’s make sure Third Sector staff working with the most socially excluded groups can not only pass on basic digital skills but that they can enthuse them and make them feel the Internet is for them. 30% of Scots don’t have basic digital skills. That figure rises to 50% of people with disabilities and 60% where the individual has no qualifications. 15% of Scots have never used the internet. A Citizen’s Advice Scotland survey found 36% of their clients have never been online. These stark figures highlight a massive societal gap that needs to be addressed if we are to achieve that 2020 vision of a digital Scotland. Access to physical technology and connectivity, particularly in rural areas, are important. But for me they’re not the big issues. We need to ensure people have the basic skills needed to get online and embrace the internet. That word ‘embrace’ is key. Oxford University looked at why people choose not to use the internet in their everyday lives – 82% of respondents were ‘not interested’. Researchers found no evidence that these people are restricted from going online. They simply don’t care. For many older, disabled and unemployed people their first foray into the digital world will be mandatory online-only benefits claim forms – hardly an inspiring start. In a sense digital inclusion is more about social barriers than technological ones. Let’s make sure Third Sector staff working with the most socially excluded groups can not only pass on basic digital skills but that they can enthuse them and make them feel the Internet is for them.

We need to be at the forefront of delivering digital public services

A key strand of the Scottish Government’s digital strategy is the digital delivery of public services. We need to make sure this isn’t a space wholly controlled by the public sector. The third sector can deliver innovative, effective services through a ‘digital-first’ approach. Of course we will always need face-to-face interaction with service users but let’s not use digital exclusion as an excuse for inaction. Could a Highlands and Islands counselling service save money and reach hundreds more isolated individuals if it allocated half its travel budget to video technology rather than the environmentally-unfriendly, time consuming practice of counsellors driving all over the region? While digital has an obvious cost saving advantage, let’s ensure this isn’t a race to the bottom. Digital should be about changing the status quo, not about leaving the most vulnerable in society even more isolated for the sake of saving a few pounds.

Let’s work with Scotland’s growing digital economy

Scotland’s billion dollar tech club of ‘Unicorns’ now has two members (Skyscanner and FanDuel) – the technology industry in this country is thriving and the Third Sector needs to start cosying up. As we explore how we’ll tackle society’s ever changing challenges, such as an aging population and growing social inequality, we cannot avoid the huge role digital has to play as a social leveller. We need to work closely with these tech giants and the smaller firms dotted across Scotland – imagine the positive change we could deliver if a tech expert sat on the board of every Scottish charity. Amazon’s UK tax bill to one side, 1% of the tech sector’s profits could bring about huge societal change if it was donated to good causes.

Funders need to embed digital in all funding streams

It’s great that there’s funding out there for digital inclusion programmes but this should be seen as a baby step. We need funders to understand the difference digital can make and put their money where their mouth is. In the future we shouldn’t need dedicated funding streams – digital should permeate all areas of the funding landscape. We also need to ensure grants officers have the skillset to objectively assess tech-based project applications from charities and social enterprises. This will be key to ensuring Scotland’s Third Sector can future proof the services it currently delivers.

Leaders need to actually lead

Half of all Scottish charities, around 20,000 organisations, lack basic digital skills. This is a massive issue which Third Sector leaders need to get to grips with sooner rather than later if the sector is to be instrumental in delivering that 2020 vision. However, staffing levels are already at an all time low, funding has been slashed for many charities, organisational culture doesn’t always value digital and access to training is patchy. We need leaders who understand this complex mix of issues and what needs to be done to bring about change. I am working with SCVO’s One Digital team to bring together a group of senior Third Sector leaders who are keen to tackle this issue. Look to CEOs like Ian Welsh at The Alliance and Louise MacDonald at Young Scot and we can see there’s charity leaders out there who get digital – let’s make sure we don’t leave half of the sector behind.

What do you see as the big digital inclusion issues within Scotland? How can the third sector ensure we make Scotland a world-leading digital nation?
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This is a repost: originally for Scottish Policy Now

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