Create Digital Inclusion Unit to tackle growing problem of digital inequality, the British Academy urges Government

22 Mar 2023

The Government should launch a ‘Digital Inclusion Unit’ to help tackle the growing problem of digital inequality, argues the British Academy in a new briefing.

Digital inequality includes inequalities in access to an internet connection (broadband and mobile plans), to adequate connection qualities and speeds, to appropriate devices (smartphones, laptops, tablets, and wearables), and to forms of support, as well as inequalities in digital literacy, skills, and service provision. Such inequality leads to lower productivity, and inequitable health outcomes, educational attainment and housing circumstances.

Despite widespread technological progress, digital inequality remains a problem. According to Ofcom research, an estimated 21% of UK internet users are only online via smartphone; 14 million people (27%) have low digital engagement scores according to the UK Consumer Digital Index 2022, and in 2020 ONS found that 6.3% of UK adults had never used the internet.

To help tackle this issue, the Academy recommends that the new Department of Science, Innovation and Technology includes a ‘Digital Inclusion Unit’ to bring together the data and expertise of local authorities, government departments, agencies and regulators, and coordinate on policy and best practice in tackling digital inequality.

This unit would work with departments and the National Audit Office to develop ways of meeting Government Service Standard 5, which aims to provide a service that “everyone can use”, including disabled people, people with other legally protected characteristics, and people who do not have access to the internet or lack the skills or confidence to use it.

The Academy also recommends:

  • Central government should collect data and evidence centrally on digital access issues, including usage of digital services, the costs of not pursuing digital inclusion, and research on successful initiatives and best practice (at local and departmental level). Contributors would include Ofcom, ONS and government departments
  • Central government should create mechanisms to support networks of local authorities and community partners who are addressing digital inequality
  • Digital access should be considered a critical public service, with government building on existing research and practice around a ‘minimal digital living standard’.

The briefing draws upon the activities and findings of the British Academy’s project on Technology and Inequality, which was commissioned by the outgoing Government Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Valance, and the Government Office for Science to improve our understanding of how government can play a key role in supporting access to, uptake on, and investment in technologies that can be critical to delivering broad public objectives, in a way that ensures inequalities do not become entrenched

Professor Helen Margetts FBA, Professor of Society and the Internet at the University of Oxford, and lead on the Working Group for the British Academy’s project on Technology and Inequality, said: 

“As the British Academy’s 2022 report Understanding Digital Poverty and Inequality illustrated, digital inequality and social inequalities are closely related and tackling one can help solve the other. However, support for the digitally disenfranchised is uneven and fragmented across the country, so there is an urgent need for strategic intervention. We hope policymakers will consider the recommendations outlined in this briefing, which our evidence shows could start to make a real difference to peoples’ lives up and down the country.”

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