Understanding Digital Poverty and Inequality in the United Kingdom

22 February 2023


Understanding Digital Poverty and Inequality in the United Kingdom

Reported by Adisetu Joy Malih, CSaP Policy Intern and Sevcan Birdal, Communications Manager

The Centre for Science and Policy in partnership with the British Academy, held a Policy Fellows Seminar led by Professor Helen Margetts, Director of the Public Policy Programme, Alan Turing Institute and Dr Alex Mankoo, Senior Policy Adviser, British Academy on 31 January 2023 at the Royal Society London. The seminar explored key messages and policy lessons from the British Academy’s report exploring Digital Poverty in the UK followed by a discussion of the implications with contributions from CSaP Policy Fellows.

Professor Margetts opened the seminar by drawing on her own difficulties in trying to contact her gas provider, noting how different outcomes for individuals in these types of interactions depend on the resources and digital capabilities we have as consumers and similar problems could have far reaching negative consequences for some consumers. This led us to the issues raised by the recent work undertaken on digital poverty and inequality in the UK by the British Academy project.

A more nuanced understanding of the landscape of digital poverty in the UK, and its associations with economic and social inequalities, will enable more effective policy interventions to tackle it.

Since many public and private services in the UK have now evolved to be primarily delivered online, whether accessing gas bills or getting an NHS appointment, the ability to engage digitally has increasingly become an essential part of our lives. This shift to online delivery forms has created new opportunities and challenges. It has also exacerbated existing challenges and inequalities for people who lack digital capabilities, whether due to insufficient access, skills, or resources.

Part of this work, as explained by Dr Mankoo, has involved exploring what research has termed the three ‘levels’ of digital inequality that exist in the UK. The first level relates to poor access to digital technology, the second to poor digital literacy and skills, and the third to a reduced ability to make use of digital resources for social benefit. Alongside these different inequalities, the researchers observed several key trends. First, the digitalisation of society and services; for example, many companies require that you have basic digital skills to access their services. Second, many services and people shifted online for the first time during the Covid-19 pandemic and digital poverty disproportionately affected people from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. Lastly, the recent cost of living pressure has created additional economic pressures on people, leading to those who might have invested their money in digital literacy now having to spend it on more basic or fundamental needs. Dr Mankoo emphasised that these three broad trends create a loop of inequality and highlight how people become increasingly excluded from accessing services because of their digital poverty.

Understanding how different aspects of digital poverty intersect is vital in order to provide targeted strategies to improve digital capabilities. For example, over 96% of UK households and businesses now have access to digital broadband. However, that does not necessarily mean that people have adequate connectivity or devices suitable to their needs. People’s own motivations and perceptions also affect how they digitally engage.

The six policy lessons

The research has identified six policy lessons that could influence policy thinking on how to tackle digital poverty and inequality across the UK effectively. The first lesson is that to address digital poverty we must move beyond improving access to providing interventions that empower people to engage digitally. Second, local resources and intermediaries can be valuable assets in tackling digital poverty. Third, strategies to tackle digital poverty are essential components of broader policies for tackling inequality, as lack of access to digital technologies and the opportunities they bring can often exacerbate other forms of social and economic inequalities. Fourth, interventions should target people most at risk of digital poverty. Fifth, people can move in and out of digital poverty over time, and finally, interventions should adapt to demographic and economic changes. Further detail on these policy recommendations can be found here.

The challenge of improving policies that deal with digital poverty and inequality

Expanding on the theme of policy lessons, the British Academy team held discussions with stakeholder groups from both local and central government, the private sector and non-governmental/civil society organisations (NGOs) to explore policy options. One theme that emerged was the idea of a minimum digital living standard; that is, using policy to set minimum standards in terms of digital access, infrastructure, skills and support for individuals and groups. The government already defines a set of standards for public service provision, which includes ensuring that people can use the services provided whether they have access to the internet or not – how is this standard being monitored across government services and who is enforcing it? How could this be expanded?

Professor Margetts concluded her talk with two recommendations. One, formalising local authorities’ role around supporting digital access, services and skills including a central repository of good practice cases in tackling digital poverty and inequality that we can learn from. Two, having a systematic approach to collecting data and pulling research together to inform policy making around tackling digital inequalities so that specific groups and individuals are targeted.

Participants responded by raising a wide range of issues and questions in relation to the work. A major theme emerged around the role of private sector corporations, given that many digital providers are in the private sector. What is the role of corporations in relation to the setting of minimal digital living standards? We know that service providers make assumptions around digital access and digital capabilities which negatively affects some individuals and groups. How do we help address those assumptions? Some people have chosen not to engage digitally and lack motivation, how do we provide support and positive examples to help reverse these decisions? Should regulation and enforcement for digital service providers and other technology companies be modelled on utility regulation?

What can we learn from other sectors in which regulation is used to protect vulnerable consumers? At a basic level, if we are addressing the interlinked nature of poverty and inequality, why not use policies such as a minimum income guarantee to target poverty directly and allow citizens to make their own choices? There was support for this approach although questions were raised about the relative cost and efficiency of using such as mechanism through the tax and benefits system. At the other end of the spectrum, attention was focused on local authorities as the location for most effectively trying to tackle the more fine-grained and localised problems of digital access and digital exclusion. A key question for engaging the work with policy authorities was around identifying who is the policy audience for these recommendations, who are the decision makers and responsible for addressing the problems that have been identified. Professor Margetts concluded by emphasising that tackling digital poverty and inequality will require a collective effort from central and local government, private sector organisations, third sector and local communities.

Image by John Schnobrich from Unsplash