Tackling the digital divide locally

By Adele Reynolds, GMCA, 28th May 2021

An image of a mum and young child on a latptop together with the title UK Consumer Digital Index 2021

This month, GMCA Principal Skills Manager Adele Reynolds, spoke at the launch of the Lloyds Banking Group 2021 Consumer Digital Index, providing local context to the findings of the index and discussing what the UK digital divide means from a regional perspective. She has written about the Consumer Digital Index and the work being done in Greater Manchester to tackle the digital divide.

The pace of the change over the last 12 months have been rapid. The 2021 Consumer Digital Index shows that 60% of people have high digital capability, but we shouldn’t let this rapid progress obscure the digital divide that still exists within our communities with the report also highlighting the millions of people in the UK who remain completely offline.

Mayoral digital inclusion ambitions

To put this into a local context, recent figures from ONS show that 176,000 Greater Manchester residents have not accessed the internet at all in the last three months. More broadly, Ofcom figures suggest as many as 1.2m Greater Manchester residents might be digitally excluded in some way, for example by feeling unable to use online banking or engage with public services online.

In Greater Manchester we believe that now is the time for digital inclusion to be addressed by those in power and to do this digital access must be considered as a basic human right. This week, the Mayor of Greater Manchester reinforced this view when he announced the bold ambition to support all under 25s, over 75s and disabled people in Greater Manchester to get online.

He said: “
The pandemic has highlighted invisible inequalities and increasing social divides. We have all seen more of our lives move online and this risks excluding those who do not have digital connectivity. Closing the digital divide now needs to become a much higher priority. The time is coming where we need to see digital connectivity as a basic human right. Without it, people will be shut out of the conversation, lose access to essential services and miss out on a whole range of opportunities.”

As part of this new ambition, the Mayor has established a Digital Inclusion Action Network, which will work closely with the 150 members of the Greater Manchester Digital Inclusion Taskforce, enabling the Mayor to work in collaboration with businesses, local authorities, voluntary and charitable organisations to drive forward this ambition.

Greater Manchester action to tackle the digital skills gap

As the Principal Skills Manager at the GMCA I am particularly interested in how we work to close the digital skills gap across the UK. The standout stat in the Consumer Index for me was- 67% of people said they would improve their digital skills if they knew help was available. For me this emphasises the importance of providing tailored and easily accessible digital skills support.

The GMCA recently reinforced its commitment to combatting the digital skills gap by joining the FutureDotNow coalition alongside organisations such as M&S, BT and Accenture. FutureDotNow is bringing together organisations from across the UK to tackle the growing digital skills gap by coordinating industry action to get working-age adults across the UK equipped with, at least, the essential digital skills for life and work.

The futuredotnow logo

One of the ways we have been tackling the digital skills gap locally is through the Adult Education Budget (AEB). Since local control of the devolved AEB was transferred to Greater Manchester, it has enabled over 3,000 Greater Manchester residents to access basic digital skills training (between August 2019 and July 2020) despite the effects of the pandemic. We plan to continue to increase the numbers of people accessing basic digital skills across Greater Manchester through the AEB by expanding the existing offer to support residents to obtain a Level 2 in digital skills.

Over the last few years, we’ve invested heavily in a place-based approach to digital inclusion. To tackle the skills shortage in Greater Manchester we have granted £1.5m to the 10 Greater Manchester local authorities to address local barriers to digital inclusion and provide residents with the digital kit needed to get online.

Over the last few years, we’ve invested heavily in a place-based approach to digital inclusion. To tackle the skills shortage in Greater Manchester we have granted £1.5m to the 10 Greater Manchester local authorities to address local barriers to digital inclusion and provide residents with the digital kit needed to get online.

An image of mable smiling holding her tablet at her front door

Mable’s Story

A human impact story that always springs to mind when I talk about the impact of digital skills work on a local level is Mable’s.

In 2018, Stockport Council established the ‘Digiknow’ alliance to help residents improve their digital skills and confidence. The Alliance appointed Starting Point to deliver the community outreach for the programme. 91-year-old Mable had not been able to leave her house during the first lockdown and was struggling to cope. Mable was referred to Starting Point and a local volunteer, Michelle who had already been bringing Mable her shopping trained to become a Digital Champion Volunteer, so she could help Mable learn the digital skills needed to help her use her new tablet donated to her through the devices.now campaign.

Mable said, “Just being able to speak to my own family has helped me a great deal. You know once I’ve spoken to them, I feel more cheerful. At night especially it can be lonely”.

Stories like Mable’s help us to demonstrate why the tackling the digital skills gap and the wider issue of digital exclusion is so important and the real impact helping someone get online can make. Although it is incredibly important to see that there has been progress in getting more people online the issue is not going away and there is a lot more work to do to tackle the digital divide.

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