Accessing digital services in rural communities

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From looking for jobs to accessing welfare benefits or arranging GP appointments, most of us use online public services, and this has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

But across the UK, some people are missing out on the benefits that can come from doing things online. This experience, widely described as ‘digital poverty’ happens when someone is unable “to interact with the online world fully, when, where and how they need to” (Digital Poverty Alliance).

It can be even more difficult for people living in rural areas, where other barriers could be limiting access to alternative, in-person options. Through a survey, interviews and a workshop with policy stakeholders, we have built up a picture of the ways in which affordability, access and confidence contribute to experiences digital poverty among rural communities in the North West of England. This work has been delivered in partnership with colleagues at Lancaster University Management School and supported by the British Academy.

This blog explores the key findings of our research including:

  • Older people and individuals on lower incomes were more likely to experience digital poverty. 16% of respondents had trouble doing things they wanted to do online , and this this rises to 28% among respondents of aged 65 years and over and 32% of those whose household income is £20,000 or less

Barriers to digital resources infographic

  • 28% of the entire sample lack a form of digital skills and this rises to over half of those aged 65 and above
  • Looking for work or applying for jobs online was the skill that most respondents lacked confidence in at 26% of the survey sample
  • 13% of the sample have poor quality or no Wi-Fi and 1 in 5 have no mobile broadband
  • 19% of the survey sample exhibited some form of cost barrier, whether in relation to broadband access, mobile phone contract data or access to devices.

Our research found that digital poverty presents in specific instances, that individuals experience as specific challenges they face in using digital technology and navigating the online world. Whether it is applying for Universal Credit online or engaging with digital health services, interventions must be framed around these specific ‘touch points’ in order to mitigate the risk of excluding residents of rural communities from making full use of online public services.

Read the regional policy briefing

Read the national policy briefing


For regional policymakers

  • 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 to improve accessibility and user experience
  • Local authorities should harness social value investment from commissioned large-scale connectivity partnerships, to target educational outreach to the rural residents at the greatest risk of digital poverty, equipping them with the key skills needed to search and apply for jobs online
  • Local authorities should collaborate with third and private sectors to undertake peer-to-peer outreach to boost confidence of rural residents in accessing digital services.

For national policymakers

  • DCMS and DWP should work together to raise awareness of the availability of social tariffs to Universal Credit claimants, and plans for a joint campaign should be set out in the forthcoming DCMS Digital Strategy 2022
  • 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. These new regulations should be drawn up in consultation with bodies such as Citizens Advice and other advisory groups.
  • DCMS should set out a strategic approach to the coordination and sharing of good practice on increasing digital confidence within its forthcoming Digital Strategy. It will be important to base this approach on cross-departmental collaboration, particularly with the DfE. A What Works Centre for Digital Skills should be established to marshal the evidence on approaches to improving confidence and to support a range of bodies engaged in delivering digital skills interventions.

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