Whether it be the weekly food shop, booking a class at your local leisure centre, looking for job opportunities or looking after your personal finances, we carry out many daily activities online. Increasingly though, not only private services but a broad range of public services are accessed through the internet. Often referred to as the ‘digital by default’ agenda, vital services across the health sector, social housing and the welfare benefits system are now often conducted through digital platforms.
Lacking the opportunity or ability to access these online services presents a challenge to public service provision. Research shows that digital exclusion is higher in rural areas than urban locations, but less is known about the conditions that underpin rural digital exclusion.
To bridge this gap in evidence, Lancaster University Management School academics and the Work Foundation have been funded by the British Academy to undertake new research to explore digital poverty in rural communities in the North West of England.
Through a representative survey of 500 people, a series of in-depth interviews and a workshop with a range of key stakeholders, the study has identified some critical dimensions of digital poverty as experienced by these communities in Cheshire, Lancashire and Cumbria:
- While 95% of the survey sample have access to the internet, a quarter are not able to make the most of that with 14% saying they would like to use more online services and 16% reporting they have trouble doing things that they want to do online.
- Although connectivity was a problem for a small number of respondents, the most common signifier of digital poverty was low confidence in using core digital skills, experienced by 28% of the survey sample. The area where confidence was lowest among survey respondents is looking for work or applying for jobs online, at 26% – this represents a key concern for job seekers in rural areas as the Covid-19 pandemic has only increased the degree to which finding and applying for jobs is conducted online.
- Those on low incomes, the unemployed and older people are more likely to have trouble doing things online than the overall sample.
- Older people rely more on friends and family for help with the internet. While 22% of respondents agree that they rely on friends and family for help with the internet, this rises to 43% among respondents aged 65 and over; 45% for unemployed respondents; and 40% for those who are disabled or a carer.
So how can we address these issues and seek to engage rural residents who are in digital poverty or are at greater risk of digital poverty? Our research highlights a set of measures that should be drawn on in designing interventions in order to drive meaningful improvements in access to digital services:
- Taking a hyper-local approach and understanding the local context and the range of available services is vital;
- Peer-to-peer interventions can usefully address local variation in access within a place, and help reach individuals and communities who would face barriers to engaging with other initiatives;
- Initiatives aimed at addressing digital poverty should be based on specific life stage requirements and transitions, and the types of digital needs they call for;
- Programmes and interventions must speak to the particular nature of tasks that people struggle with and the problems with digital engagement that they need to overcome, rather than being exclusively tabled as efforts to make someone ‘digitally included rather than excluded’.
We outline a set of recommendations across two briefings produced, for regional and national policy-makers. These include:
- DCMS and DWP should work together to raise awareness of social tariffs as available to Universal Credit claimants, with plans for a joint campaign to be set out in the forthcoming Digital Strategy 2022;
- Partnerships between local authorities, the third and private sectors, should undertake educational outreach through peer-to-peer approaches to boost confidence;
- Ofcom should require providers to fully disclose the full range of charges included within mobile or broadband packages and ensure this information reaches vulnerable consumers in clearly understandable terms;
- Job websites and recruiters should work with local authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and other partners to conduct outreach with rural residents with low confidence in looking for jobs online;
- Social value within large connectivity partnerships should be leveraged to drive support and outreach.
The Levelling Up agenda provides a strong imperative to address digital poverty, at both a regional and national level, with the Government aiming to boost productivity, pay, jobs and living standards in those places where they are lagging. For too long, many rural communities have faced economic and social decline due to a range of factors, such as unaffordable housing or a lack of work opportunities, resulting in young people moving away to fulfil their career and life aspirations. Addressing digital poverty in rural communities is vital for Levelling Up the UK and ensuring that rural areas thrive with new opportunities for residents and businesses.
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