Digital inclusion: 5 steps to reaching the unreachable

There are digitally-excluded people on your patch. Here’s how to find them…

Finding the people in our communities who aren’t only digitally excluded, but actually really impacted by that, is crucial work. So how do we do it? Here are some big steps from our masterclass…

1. Define your terms

At our LGA Digital Access for All masterclass, Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s digital inclusion guru, Chris Pope, shared some phrases. “Digital poverty; digital engagement; digital literacy; digitally limited…these phrases are often used interchangeably, but they’re not all the same thing,” he told attendees.

“Digital exclusion for us is those people experiencing a barrier to their ability to use the internet and use digital services in the way they want. We recognise that those barriers can come and go and change over time. That’s the definition that’s right for us, but you need to work out one that’s right for you.”

2. Find the intel – and then question it

“The main data sets we all use don’t show what we think they do, or what you might want,” says Chris, citing as an example intelligence from the census which appears to indicate uptake of the digital form but may include excluded people who were helped by others.

Also, “the ONS sent paper copies to areas they expected to be digitally excluded anyway, which would skew the results,” points out Chris. Challenging your own personal and organisational biases around the interpretation of data is another big theme here. At Lincolnshire CC, a council we partnered with to tackle digital inclusion, the adult care and community wellbeing team had to interrogate received wisdoms in this rural region. “Some of our challenges aren’t just around connectivity but people’s perceptions of connectivity,” head of quality and information Theo Jarratt told our masterclass. “People have lived so long in this area with difficulties around connection it’s become an ingrained expectation.”

3. Use the tools (plural) at your disposal

“We know there’s not a single consistent dataset that shows the extent of digital inclusion or exclusion,” says Chris. So, taking a step closer to the ‘names, not numbers’ principle, GMCA piggy-backed on existing models to produce a free national dataset – Digital Exclusion Risk Index – for homing in on regional likelihood of digital exclusion.

“Age, income and education are all well proven risk factors for exclusion, but we identified 12 indicators in three groups: the demographics of residents, the risk factors associated with the deprivation of a place, and risk factors associated with internet connectivity.” Chris stresses this is *a* tool, not *the* tool. A new tool to accompany the Digital Access for All masterclass is also available to help you assemble the right building blocks to achieve wider digital inclusion.

4. Understand your priority groups

Defining those who are most at risk of digital exclusion isn’t the same as finding those most impacted by it. “Ninety-four percent of adults who’ve never used the internet are aged 55 or above,” pointed out Chris, “but the individual lifetime impact is going to be more intense for that 0.4% who are aged 16-25 and have never used the internet. It’s a smaller number, but the impact is going to be much bigger.”

So where are you going to focus your energies and resources? Chris recommends using your data, intelligence and engagement with the community to build a picture of areas of high digital exclusion from the DERI, and where there’s also a high proportion of your priority group. “Those are the areas you might want to target.”

5. Engage in your area

Where might there be gaps in current provision? Where can you partner with local third sector organisations or local networks to pool activities and resources?

In Lincolnshire Theo’s team were able to tap into projects and activities already underway to start addressing their digital access ambitions. Getting really stuck into the detail of your local communities is the very best way to reach the otherwise unreachable; just be ready to check your unconscious biases, and perhaps paternalistic instincts, when working with people with lived experience of the barriers you’re trying to overcome.

“If WE want to create services for those who are excluded by any kind of protected characteristic but WE doing the work is a group of privileged, well- educated, predominantly white people then WE is exclusive and will miss opportunities to deliver what all of us want to achieve,” says NHS England’s Caroline Poole. “Remember ‘Myron’s Maxims’: People own what they help create.”

Get true co-production happening from the beginning, says Caroline, and the likelihood of success goes through the roof .

Irene Carson is the managing director of Rethink Partners. She helps organisations explore and discover why people behave as they do and the causes and effects of those behaviours, decisions and policies.

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