Local authorities can forge a path for digital inclusion

Graham Cutting, public sector lead at Cantium Business Solutions, on how local authorities can tackle the challenge of digital exclusion head-on.

Posted 12 October 2022 by Christine Horton

Digital inclusion is a key part of the Government’s levelling up agenda. The Levelling Up white paper even acknowledges the importance of digital skills and connectivity in developing different areas of the UK. But when nearly 15 million people in the UK have ‘very low’ digital capabilities and seven percent of UK adults have no internet access, how can local authorities begin to tackle the issue?

I believe our society must enable the entire population to be digitally capable and able to access the services they need. Much of the time, this does begin at the local authority level. With an understanding of the needs of local people, councils are uniquely equipped to be able to tackle this challenge.

Identifying the digitally disconnected

The past two years have ushered in a cultural shift when it comes to digital services. Many services are now online, saving staff time, resources and making things more convenient. But this change has also exposed a societal inequality when it comes to accessing them. For those lucky enough to be online, they are now being invited to attend health support programmes and vital appointments remotely over the internet. But for many cohorts, this isn’t possible and it impacts a range of people, from the elderly, the disabled, to those who simply cannot afford the correct devices or an internet connection.

Public health teams at many local authorities have already identified this challenge, and recognising those in need is important part of that. Often the missing link is a person, from the local authority, who can identify the individuals needing support in the first place and help assist them with accessing the devices, apps or general digital skills they may need. This is where the role of the ‘digital champion’ comes in, and it’s something many local authorities have decided to implement.

Local authorities can provide solutions

Once the digital champion is in post, how do you begin to help people? There are many ways to enable better digital access for the population – including training programmes, tablet borrowing schemes, application assistance for mobile devices, supporting elderly residents to access digital services, and even drop-in sessions to increase digital skills.

Sometimes it can be difficult to know where to start. Looking at how other local authorities operate digital inclusion schemes will open up a wealth of best practice. Find out how they are using digital champions, what assistance they are putting in place, how they are finding those citizens that need help the most. Look at what works and think about how to adapt it for your individual needs as a local authority.

Once you are clear on what your requirements are, it will be easier to access the correct funding, and to find a suitable delivery partner to make the vision a reality. This partner can provides the devices, apps or organise external services, helping local authorities to design a solution that enables access to vital services. From health visiting and maternity services to substance misuse services and other schemes inspired by the idea of social prescribing. Vulnerable groups of people should be able to engage with services while increasing their digital skills, capabilities and confidence, and these are the first steps towards that goal.

Autonomy for service users

Digital skills can give individuals a way to connect with friends, family and peers. From increasing confidence, to gaining autonomy when accessing services like remote care, the personal outcomes for this range widely. With the support of a digital champion, the right strategy and delivery partner in place, local authorities can help people achieve those exact outcomes.

We can’t underestimate the value of being able to shop online, attend support groups, and even manage your own care using a mobile device. These are the things that help people feel truly empowered and they also deliver benefits for local authorities. A renewed focus on digital inclusion can lead to improve service outcomes like appointment attendance and service uptake. This will loosen up more time for internal staff and enable them to carry out their work more effectively.

Councils and suppliers must collaborate

The 2021 Lloyds Consumer Digital Index shows that there has been a substantial increase in the number of internet users, but we can all agree that more needs to be done to support people with low digital engagement.

Suppliers and councils can, and should, work together to achieve the outcomes we all need. There is no downside to improving digital access and literacy, since it enables low-cost remote services to be delivered more effectively – and precisely to the people who need them the most. This collaborative effort and clearly defined vision is what will see local authorities succeed.

Graham Cutting is public sector lead at Cantium Business Solutions.