David Scurr

As part of our interview series with digital charity leaders, we talk to David Scurr, Programme & Partnerships Lead at CAST. David shares his insights on the impact of both the COVID pandemic and the cost of living crisis on charities and digital. What can charities do to tackle digital inclusion for their employees and service users?

1. Can you tell us about the impact that the cost of living crisis is having on digital inclusion from your perspective?

Without a doubt, the cost of living crisis deepens the digital divide in the UK. This is because the people who are most at risk of being digitally excluded are also the same groups who are hit the most by the rising bills and food prices – i.e. people that are older, disabled and/or living on low incomes. Recent research by Citizens Online and the Institute for Development Studies shows that 1 in 5 households of incomes under £25,000 per year don’t have access to the internet. One in 10 of England’s poorest households reduce spending on essentials like food or clothes to afford a phone or home internet. As we all start to pull together to cope with rising energy bills, many people are also now facing an increase in broadband bills mid-contract.

The cost of living crisis is deepening the digital divide,  with lack of affordability and accessibility increasing exclusion. It’s forcing a number of people to now choose between food, heating or data/broadband.

2. How has digital inclusion changed since the first COVID lockdown? What trends have you seen and which are you most concerned about?

Along with the terrible impact on lives across the world, the pandemic brought some focus and urgency to digital inclusion. The much talked about ‘digital first’ world became a reality overnight. The Lloyds Consumer Index Report, published in Summer 2022, shows that 99% of the UK has recently been online. That’s a 10% increase from 2016, when the benchmark began. Confidence and basic skills digital skills have improved as a result of remote working. There’s no doubt that communication and the pandemic have accelerated the digitisation of society and the workplace.

The pandemic exposed the fact that millions of people were either not online or didn’t have the basic digital skills to thrive in a ‘digital first’ world. Many of those people formed part of the workforce and so more scrutiny was placed on the digital skills gaps in work. Organisations from across all sectors had to start playing a more active role in supporting their employees, customers and beneficiaries to adapt to this new reality.

For the third sector, this meant that charities were quickly having to grasp how they could actively respond to the issue. This created opportunities to raise awareness, educate and empower organisations in digital inclusion. It became a priority for everyone.

More recently, we’ve seen a move back to in-person or hybrid services. Charities are facing mounting pressure with the cost of living crisis and juggling new priorities and, as a result, they are less able to provide support for digital inclusion. Only 21% of those surveyed in the Charity Digital Skills Report 2022 mentioned that they were providing digital inclusion support. This is compared to 45% the year before!

It’s important that we carry on encouraging charities to maintain their focus in this area. And it’s vital that we champion the work of the amazing networks that are joining up the support that’s available.

3. Do you think these issues are going to get better or worse this year and why?

The external environment is unlikely to get better soon. These are unprecedented times for everyone and only the beginning of a potential recession. This will exacerbate some of the barriers to digital inclusion, such as lack of affordability and accessibility.

What we’ve seen on the back of the pandemic is a more joined up approach to responding to digital exclusion. For example, the Digital Poverty Alliance is a new UK-wide partnership that aims to align the different initiatives and foster more collaboration. We’re part of their Community Board through our work with Catalyst and it’s been great to help co-design a National Action Plan to tackle digital poverty nationally.

There’s also now a more robust infrastructure nationally. For example, the National Data Bank and the new National Device Bank, run by Good Things Foundation, provide free data and devices to people most in need.

At CAST, we’re seeing more and more digital inclusion and upskilling at the forefront of our partnerships. Our partnership with Deloitte focuses on bridging the digital divide by improving the digital capability of charities. The Innovation and Digital Accelerator programme we’re running in partnership with Sport England also explores how to make access to sport more inclusive.

The Catalyst network is also playing an important role in identifying the changing needs of civil society and enabling a collaborative ecosystem of support.

In all, it does feel like there’s a more joined-up approach than there was three years ago and that we’re better equipped to signpost, organise and provide support.

4. How can charities tackle digital inclusion?

In lots of different ways!

By providing online services that are inclusive and accessible. Charities can play an important role by ensuring that their online services are as accessible as possible, safe and meet user needs. Understanding the needs of their service users is important. This can be the difference between a web user with low digital literacy having a boost in confidence versus feeling reluctant to get back online. It’s really easy to knock someone’s confidence because of a clunky web page that hasn’t been designed with the end user in mind. At CAST, we offer free introductory training for digital service design and can help you get started. You can find out more here.

By upskilling staff and volunteers, then service users. Charities play the role of trusted intermediaries for many people. The same goes for helping others get online or gain more confidence. Charity staff and volunteers can train to be Digital Champions. It’s important that we develop a workforce that is more digitally confident so that knowledge and skills cascade down to our beneficiaries. The Charity Digital Skills Report is a great resource that outlines the skills gaps and trends.

By adopting a networked approach. Charities can play a key role in signposting their service users to digital inclusion support. What we still often notice is that many charities are unaware of all the free support that’s already out there. At CAST, we run digital inclusion training across our digital programmes to raise awareness of such support. There are some great digital inclusion partnerships and networks at both national and local levels. Joining these is an important step to recognising how your organisation can start playing a more active role and make a difference.

There are even more useful recommendations in the UK Digital Poverty Evidence review that are applicable to all sectors. It’s well worth a read.

5. Where can charities get help with digital inclusion? Who is doing great work in this space?

As mentioned already, the Digital Poverty Alliance brings together lots of different initiatives. They’ve started compiling a directory of support so that’s a great place to start.

Good Things Foundation run a network of Online Centres across the country. They also run the National Data and Device Banks, as well as the ‘Learn My Way’ free training portal.

The Digital Champions Network run by Digital Unite provides support for staff who want to become digital champions. They also have lots of free useful step-by-step tech guides on their website.

Citizens Online have a free phone digital skills helpline and other training resources.

Through our work with Catalyst, we compiled an open list of 70 digital inclusion resources during the pandemic. You can also find out five ways charities have reduced digital exclusion through their services and hopefully get inspired!

The Tech for Good groups across the UK are also a great place to find support on all things digital.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that we’re currently co-designing a new Digital Skills Framework for charities. The framework will help staff assess their digital skills and find resources to build skills and confidence. This will cover digital foundations for basic and advanced skills. Get in touch if you’d like to find out more. And watch this space!

If you’d like to get in touch with David, email david.scurr@wearecast.org.uk