New report proposes six policy lessons to address digital inequality

Lancaster University research has contributed to a new British Academy report exploring how to tackle the rise of digital poverty.

Empowering local initiatives and ensuring consistent and long-term investment are among the report’s recommendations for policymakers, published this week.

Across the UK there are huge disparities in digital access, digital skills, usage, and outcomes illustrated by the fact that ‘among people living on household incomes under £25,000, one in five never use the internet – rising to nearly a third of disabled people and nearly a half of those aged 65 or over’.

To inform policy thinking around the crucial challenge of addressing inequality, the British Academy commissioned six projects that examined different aspects of digital poverty in the UK.

One of these research projects, ‘Digital Poverty Transformation: Accessing Digital Services in Rural Northwest Communities’ was conducted by experts from Lancaster University Management School (LUMS) and the Work Foundation.

Earlier this year, the Lancaster-led research discovered one in four people were struggling to complete key tasks online. Twenty-eight per cent of the population in rural North West England said they were not confident completing key tasks online, such as applying for a job or making an online call. Concerningly, over half of those aged 65 and above and those on lower incomes lacked digital skills – meaning those most in need of online services were least likely to be able to access them.

The British Academy report ‘Understanding Digital Poverty and Inequality in the UK’ highlights all six projects’ key findings and identifies six lessons to shape policy that effectively addresses digital poverty and inequality:

  1. Addressing digital poverty involves more than improving access – interventions must empower people and places to benefit from digital access.
  2. Local resources and intermediaries can be valuable assets in tackling place-based digital poverty, and the public sector has a crucial role to play in enabling them.
  3. Strategies to tackle digital poverty are important components of broader policies of tackling inequality.
  4. Policies should consider how and why intersecting inequalities are likely to exacerbate. digital poverty and design interventions that can benefit those most at risk of digital poverty
  5. People can move in and out of digital poverty over time.
  6. Consider policy interventions that can adapt to demographic and economic changes, through consistent and long-term investment.

LUMS’ Professor Katy Mason led the Lancaster research project. She said: “Our research goes some way to understanding the types of interventions we need in order to reduce digital poverty both in the North West and nationally.

“Hyper-local solutions form part of the answer and are critical for addressing the levelling-up agenda. There is still much to do to address this complex problem.”

The report published this week sits alongside and feeds into a British Academy project on Technology and Inequality. The Academy’s Technology and Inequality project was prompted by a request, in early 2022, by Sir Patrick Vallance and the Government Office for Science to conduct an independent project on the topic of technology and inequality. This work seeks to improve the British Academy’s understanding of how government can play a key role in supporting access to, uptake of, and investment in technologies that can be critical to delivering broad public objectives, in a way that ensures inequalities do not become entrenched. A new evidence hub will collate the Academy’s Technology and Inequality work.

Professor Helen Margetts FBA, Professor of Society and the Internet at the University of Oxford, said: “As digital technology has become increasingly integrated with modern life, it has become essential that people have access to broadband and appropriate digital devices. However, there are wide disparities in people’s opportunities to use these technologies and engage digitally. This report highlights the profound impacts of digital inequality across the UK. It will provide policymakers with the evidence necessary to support those who are most marginalised and address wide-ranging inequalities.”

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