DIGITAL EXCLUSION: A GROWING THREAT TO YOUR IMPACT, STRATEGIC OBJECTIVES AND ABILITY TO ACCESS FUNDING?
Since September 2020, we’ve been working with a group of eight voluntary sector leaders to explore how the sector can respond to new challenges and opportunities related to Covid-19. One of the themes has been digital exclusion. With thanks to the group, we’ve shared some key learning and ideas below.
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The pros and cons of digital transformation
In 2020, we witnessed digital transformation and innovation like never before. In response to Covid and social distancing, charities and social enterprises of all shapes and sizes were forced to find a way of delivering services online, or stop them altogether.
In mere weeks, organisations overcame barriers that previously seemed insurmountable - with software, skillsets and service user confidence. The results have been truly amazing. Organisations have been able to reach more people, more quickly, and potentially more cheaply than ever before. And many have found digital to be a great platform for their advocacy work - suddenly they’re able to voice their community’s needs and influence policy on a national rather than merely a local level.
Yet is everything quite as rosy as it seems? What about the people who can’t or simply aren’t accessing services online? Are you inadvertently at risk of leaving people behind and exacerbating inequalities? And if so, what does this mean for your long-term impact, strategic objectives and ability to access funding?
We asked voluntary sector leaders to explain the causes and impact of digital exclusion - and here’s what they told us
Covid-19 has significantly increased inequalities in many communities, with a growing digital divide. All too frequently, the people who are most in need of support are also the most digitally excluded:
This is a particular issue in primary care and education settings. While local authorities are attempting to address this by providing essential equipment, distribution is far too slow - even now, we are nowhere near the point where every child has a laptop. Free on-site digital training from businesses (such as banks) is currently not available due to social distancing measures, and even after lockdown could remain inaccessible for those who are most vulnerable.
Overcoming cultural, language and confidence barriers is much more difficult online. ‘Shoulder to shoulder’ activities (such as cookery clubs and Men's Sheds) are amazingly effective at encouraging people to bond, open up and share concerns in informal settings, while doing activities. This simply can’t be replicated in a Zoom call where people are forced to maintain eye contact and feel much more self-conscious.
Digital delivery introduces new safeguarding and privacy concerns that disproportionately impact people on low incomes. What if you need urgent support to protect you from domestic violence or deal with a personal health issue, but live in a small flat and are always within the earshot of family members? Or how can you make the most of online exercise classes if you have no space, facilities or privacy at home?
We are all overwhelmed by more screen time than ever before - adults are working from home and young people are home schooling. This leads to significant fatigue and is another big barrier to engagement, even for services that in theory work well online.
It's challenging to map out who is being excluded from digital services and what their barriers are, when you can’t engage them in the first place. And if digital delivery has enabled you to move into a new geographical area, you might know even less about the local delivery landscape and be working completely in the dark.
Staff who did a brilliant job running face-to-face services might not be natural online facilitators - due to a lack of digital confidence, training or a good home connection. But in current circumstances, they might feel that they should just 'muck in' rather than raising concerns.
For so long we’ve all been talking about digital transformation as a huge potential positive – but there’s an overwhelming sense that while services are changing at pace, too many service users and staff are being left behind.
So what can we all do to address digital exclusion?
1. Grassroots collaboration and activity
Some of our course participants are now exploring the idea of creating ‘digital community hubs’ for vulnerable people who lack the technology, expertise or space to access digital services at home. These hubs would be confidential and Covid-secure spaces for people who need drop-in style digital support and free WiFi connections.
Hubs could be set up in existing community facilities such as libraries, or make use of currently empty buildings such as offices or co-working spaces. To make this happen, local community organisations would need to pool their resources and collaborate on funding bids in order to secure spaces, equipment and staffing. While hubs would cost money, they might enable organisations to make savings by closing some services or facilities that they currently fund in their entirety.
To foster a collaborative approach, every community would ideally need a ‘digital coordinator’. Organisations also need to collaborate better in terms of sharing data and learning about digital exclusion, and pilot solutions.
In the short-term, while services can’t take place face-to-face, it's worth considering whether a digital-only approach is sufficiently fair and accessible. A blended approach involving things like telephone support is likely to better for service users facing safeguarding or privacy issues.
2. Funding and in-kind support
Nobody on our course was currently aware of any significant funding to specifically tackle digital exclusion. Grant funding will be esssential to pay for tangible things like equipment, WiFi connections and data allowances, as well as the additional staff time needed to map out people's needs, adapt services and trial new solutions.
There's a real opportunity for in-kind support too - for example tech equipment and training from companies, and cooperation from mobile phone companies to provide data allowances and devices with pre-installed platforms that minimise data use. Discussing this issue with your suppliers and corporate supporters may be an important first step.
Corporate fundraisers often experience frustration that companies are more willing to give time and ‘things’ than donations. Here’s a tangible opportunity to ask for readily-available equipment that can make an immediate difference - though with many companies severely impacted by the pandemic, the timing could be tricky.
3. Sector-wide lobbying and campaigning
It's clear that we haven’t fully got to grips with the scale of the problem of digital exclusion - there's a lack of awareness among policymakers, a dearth of research to understand it, and a scarcity of funding to overcome it. The organisations that we're working with felt that a coordinated response from the voluntary sector, including support from infrastructure and advocacy organisations, will be needed to:
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