Some of the Advanced team attended the Digital Government North event in Manchester in September. The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, is a passionate advocate for levelling up and rebalancing the North-South Divide. He spoke about the importance of ensuring universal digital access before transitioning to a fully digital society, citing a statistic that 88% of the population can access digital services, thus leaving 12% who are excluded. Andy questioned the legality and morality of this digital divide, and called for more investment and support for those who are digitally disadvantaged.
As a digital software and solutions provider, Advanced is focused on providing technology that helps people do their jobs more easily, increasing work satisfaction and improving the experience of work while also driving greater productivity and profitability for employers. It is easy to forget, when working in Cloud-based platforms and participating in frequent online video calls with colleagues and clients, that digital access is a privilege that is not available to all.
In education for example, the pandemic exposed the vast gulf between the digital haves and have nots. Many schools had to pull together resources to provide tablets and laptops for children who couldn’t participate in online learning during lockdown because they had no devices. A bigger challenge was posed by the households that were without internet access at all.
A report from the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee (CDC) in 2023 revealed that 7 million UK households have no broadband or mobile internet access. Many are held back by a lack of skills – 4 million people are unable to complete a single digital task to get online such as opening an internet browser, connecting to a WiFi network, updating a password or even using a mouse. This doesn’t just affect the elderly and retired – the generation one might expect to have been passed by, by the digital age. 5 million workers are estimated to be acutely under-skilled in basic digital skills by 2030 and a shocking £63 billion is lost to the UK economy each year due to overall digital skills shortages.
This is not a problem that will solve itself. The CDC report also shows that 1 million people have cut back on, or cancelled internet packages in the last year because they can’t afford them. The statistics vary a little from the Mayor’s, but there is no question that there remains a percentage of the population who are at a substantial digital disadvantage and in the current economic squeeze, more households may be forced to cut back further.
The impact of this could be significant for local authorities, who are already facing financial challenges and increasing demand for their services. Local councils have a duty to support the most vulnerable members of their communities, but doing so may come at the expense of other areas of spending and must not compromise their ability to deliver crucial frontline services such as waste collections, adult and child social care, and much, much more. They also need to strive towards eradicating digital deprivation and many are already investing, together with private sector providers and central government, to roll out faster broadband services for citizens.
When local authorities are tasked with doing more, for less, the need for more strategic procurement that can reduce outgoings is highlighted. Our colleague Bryn Stevens spoke at the event, describing how technology can help improve the procurement process and achieve better business outcomes by enhancing the customer experience. Designed for purpose procurement solutions can help local authorities to reduce risks, increase efficiency and become a more reliable business partner. He shared some best practices and examples of how to leverage technology to optimise the procurement procedure and deliver value to customers, which will ultimately help local authorities, to make the public purse stretch further.
Meanwhile, Andy expressed gratitude for all the good work already being done by local authorities and their partners who are supporting the rollout of digital services in order to combat digital disadvantage. By helping to ensure that everyone can access decent broadband and/or mobile internet access, these organisations can help ensure that people of all generations are exposed to the digital age, can learn basic skills, and eventually help bridge the digital skills gap for a more sustainable future workforce.
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