Westminster View: Solving Digital Exclusion

The government is not being ambitious enough by accepting four million people will still lack digital skills by the end of this parliament.

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As I set out in my last blog, one of the two key tests by which I believe we should judge the success or otherwise of this Conservative Government is digital inclusion. Digital Government without digital inclusion is a return to the traditional Tory model of democracy amongst a narrow elite. All citizens should have access to digital government services; that is what government means in a democracy.

The Coalition government forgot digital inclusion for most of its tenure. When it did finally get round to writing a digital inclusion strategy in April 2014 its target for inclusion was a paltry 90%.  Inclusion for the last Government meant one in ten of us would be excluded.

Now we have a new Government and a new minister I wondered whether they would stand by that target, or, perhaps I even hoped, improve upon it.

So I asked Matthew Hancock what I thought was a relatively simple question:

To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office, what target his Department has for the proportion of the UK population which should be able to access services online; and when he plans to publish an update to the Government's Digital Inclusion Strategy.

His answer was anything but simple:

The Digital Inclusion Strategy aims to reduce the proportion of UK adults who lack basic digital skills by 25% by 2016, and by a further 25% every two years thereafter.

So the answer was not a number, but an infinite mathematical series.  I had not realised that the Right Honourable Matthew Hancock (PPE Oxford) was such a mathematics geek.  I wondered whether it would catch on across Government and all PQ responses would be in the form of simultaneous equations.

I was reluctant this early in our acquaintance to accuse the Paymaster General of deliberately trying to obscure the truth. Perish the thought that a minister might do that.

As my engineering degree was mainly mathematics I was pretty sure I could solve the ‘answer’ as long as I had starting point.  So I asked what is called a ‘pursuant’ follow up question:

To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office, pursuant to the Answer of 8 June 2015 to Question 1492, what the proportionate baseline is for the goal of reducing the proportion of UK adults who lack basic digital skills by 25 per cent by 2016; and until what year he plans to reduce that proportion by a further 25 per cent.

He chose to ignore the second part of the question but at least answered the first:

The proportionate baseline was the 20% of the adult population who lacked basic digital skills in March/May 2014, as measured by BBC research.

So now we were getting somewhere.  A few minutes with a spreadsheet yielded the graph below:

Graph displaying projected numbers with no digital skills

So it appears this Government’s target for digital inclusion is to have four million people still without basic digital skills by the end of this Parliament. This Government lectures us on the value of aspiration and yet its own digital skills aspiration is totally lacking in ambition. According to the Paymaster General’s proposals it does not achieve its lamentable 10% target till 2030 and it is not until 2040 that the number lacking basic skills becomes insignificant.

But the truth may be simpler still - that the Government has no idea what it is doing on digital inclusion.  The Paymaster General’s colleague, the Minister for the Digital Economy Ed Vaizey announced in a ‘digital leaders’ blog ‘Fostering skills for the digital economy’ that one million people would be supported to gain basic digital skills over the course of this Parliament.

This leaves 8 million digitally disadvantaged at the end of the Parliament, which may be intended to make Matt Hancock’s proposals appear positively ambitious. What it certainly does is demonstrate that they cannot even join up DCMS and the Cabinet Office.  What hope is there for a strategic, joined up, cross Governmental silos approach to digital skills?

The difference between Hancock and Vaizey is around four million of our fellow citizens, hardly a rounding error. Digital is more than simply the internet or computers or big data.  It is an enabling technology which is going to form the underlying platform for so much of how we live our lives. The economy of the UK, our culture, our society will need everyone to achieve a level of basic digital literacy. 

This point was well made by Martha Lane Fox in her Dimbleby Lecture and doteveryone campaign. If we are not all online we will all lose out on the benefits of the digital age.

The minister and his government need to focus of solving the digital inclusion challenge for our country. So far this is yet another #Toryfail

Chi Onwurah is a Labour MP for Newcastle and shadow Cabinet Office minister. 

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