Teaching digital skills will help tackle social exclusion, says Good Things Foundation Chief

Posted On: 
4th October 2017

Good Things Foundation Chief Executive Helen Milner argues that tackling digital exclusion is a key step to reducing levels of social exclusion.

“If you can’t get onto the internet in the first place, then you are left behind before we even get to the discussion about digital skills" - Michael Tomlinson MP
Credit: 
PA

Speaking at a Centre for Social Justice panel event on tackling digital exclusion through a social justice strategy, Helen Milner, Chief Executive of Good Things Foundation, explained how digital exclusion and social exclusion have become inextricably linked.

“People used to accuse us of being a single-issue charity… but we quickly found that people who were digitally excluded were also usually socially excluded too.”

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“With digitisation, we are creating a new divide, the people who are left behind are not just unable to find out the bus times, they are actually more and more excluded from basic public services… working with digital exclusion means you are working with social exclusion too.”

Gillian Keegan, the new MP for Chichester, agreed that digital exclusion is especially problematic when it manifests itself as a barrier to public services.

“A lot of public services are now incredibly simple to access through digital, but extremely difficult to access through any other route.

“The same with some of the health services…I think it is holding the NHS and hospitals back from using technology, because you can’t risk getting digital wrong and holding people back.”

Michael Tomlinson, MP for Mid Dorset and North Poole, highlighted the plight of some of his constituents who struggled to even get an internet connection.

“If you can’t get onto the internet in the first place, then you are left behind before we even get to the discussion about digital skills…For many households, access is the first stage of the discussion.”

Also speaking on the panel was London MEP Syed Kamall, who highlighted the opportunities for digital platforms to drive down the cost of delivery for public services, but felt that a lack of competence and a fear of embracing new technology was stopping sections of the population from being able to transfer to new online platforms.

“If all you want to do is apply for something that you’ve always applied for by a paper form, and now you’re told, literally overnight, that you must apply through a digital platform, it is a scary thought.”

He continued: “We aren’t very good at getting people to transfer from paper platforms to digital platforms. If people aren’t competent or confident enough to make that transfer then we are by definition excluding them.”

The best way of utilising these skills is by integrating digital into existing policy structures to create a holistic approach, says Helen Milner.

“We need to see digital as an opportunity to deliver better social policy. Those who are digitally excluded are also the biggest users of public services.”

“We must build on the social infrastructure that is in our communities… if you can work with them in a holistic way then we can reach into the hearts of those communities.”

Syed Kamall MEP also supported the idea of creating an integrated approach, working across Government, the private and third sectors to increase digital literacy in the UK.

“We have got to work out how we are going to take people from where they are now, to where they want to be and not assume it is going to be a top-down state, or top-down private sector approach. It’s got to be in the hearts of our communities, supporting community projects that help people move on.”

The panel agreed that developing and teaching these digital skills required a more comprehensive and personal approach. Helen Milner highlighted how any digital skills training needed to look at an individual’s underlying social problems which could have a serious impact on their ability to learn.

“Some have very low learning confidence… they don’t believe that they can learn something new… society has told them that they are stupid, underachieving and have low aspirations.”

“Social exclusion and digital exclusion have massive overlap and it is about much more than just teaching them some skills…this isn’t just about teaching someone to send an email and everything will be fine.

“It is about teaching someone with low self-esteem, low self-confidence, and low aspiration that they are worthwhile… it is about providing them with that platform to have a better life.”

She stressed that the opportunity to develop digital skills in these communities could help overcome ‘centuries old’ social injustices, and could help lift people out of social exclusion.

“If we give them confidence and self-esteem and make them a part of their local communities, then we can put pathways in place to help deal with their social challenges as well as their digital challenges.”

Calvin Robinson, a secondary school computer science teacher who used to run a digital agency, believes that tackling the digital skills gap starts in schools.

“If we don’t address this in schools, and in education, then we are going to see this same problem again in 20-30 years.” 

Iain Wood, Director of Regulation and Public Affairs at Talk Talk, concluded the event with a word of warning. He highlighted that despite having spoken alongside Helen at numerous events over the years, the numbers of people who are digitally excluded have remained relatively steady.

“The only thing that will dramatically move the dial is when we set a target to have universal digital literacy in the UK. We wouldn’t think it was acceptable to say that we don’t care if vast swathes of the population can’t read or write. Apparently, it’s ok to say we have that gap in digital literacy.”

“We need to set an end-point for when we want to have universal digital literacy and cost it. We know from organisations like Good Things Foundation that it doesn’t have to cost a dramatic amount of money.”

“We need to have the ambition to set those targets, otherwise I worry we will be back in 5 years’ time having the same conversations.”