Why the digital divide matters for children’s future prospects

By Steven McGinty

One of the biggest myths of modern times is that all children and young people are ‘digital natives’. That is, they have developed an understanding of digital technologies as they’ve grown up, rather than as adults. But this view has been heavily contested, with research highlighting that young people are not a “homogeneous generation of digital children”.

In the media, the issue is rarely given attention. Instead, news reports focus on the use of futuristic technologies in the classroom, such as East Renfrewshire Council’s recent announcement of their investment of £250,000 in virtual reality equipment. The less spoken truth is that many children and young people are leaving school without basic digital skills.

In 2017, the Carnegie Trust UK published a report challenging the assumption that all young people are digitally literate. They highlighted that as many as 300,000 young people in the UK still lack basic digital skills, and that although more are becoming digitally engaged, the division is deepening for those that remain excluded.

In particular, the report highlighted that vulnerable young people are most at risk, such as those who are unemployed, experiencing homelessness, living in care, in secure accommodation, excluded from mainstream education, or seeking asylum.

Research by the UK Digital Skills Taskforce has also found that many young people lack digital skills. However, an arguably more worrying finding from their study was that 23% of parents did not believe digital skills were relevant to their children’s future career success. This suggests that digital literacy is as much associated with socio-cultural values as to whether you are Generation X or Generation Y.

Similarly, the CfBT Education Trust examined the digital divide in access to the internet for school students aged five to 15. It found that children from households of the lowest socio-economic class access the internet for just as long as those from other backgrounds, but they are significantly less likely to use the internet to carry out school work or homework. As a result, the report recommended that interventions should not focus on improving access but rather ensuring that students are using technology effectively.

Further research by the CfBT Education Trust found that only 3% of young people did not have access to the internet, and suggested that schemes which provide students with free equipment are in danger of wasting resources.

Many believe digital skills are essential for academic success. This includes the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, who in 2017 recommended that digital skills should be taught alongside reading, writing and mathematics, rather than in specialist computer science classes.

Research, however, is unclear on the digital divide’s impact on educational performance (for example, research has shown that smartphone use has no impact on education attainment). But teachers are concerned about their pupils, and in a 2010 survey 55% of teachers felt that the digital divide was putting children at a serious disadvantage.

However, there are organisations offering hope to young people. For instance, Nominet Trust’s Digital Reach programme is working with leading youth organisations to increase digital skills amongst some of the UK’s most disadvantaged young people. Vicki Hearn, director at Nominet Trust, explains that:

Digitally disadvantaged young people are amongst the hardest-to-reach and we need new models to engage with them to disrupt the cycle of disadvantage and exclusion. Our evidenced approach gives us confidence that Digital Reach will have a tangible impact on the lives of those who have so far been left behind.”

Final thoughts

Whether someone has digital skills or not is often a mix of their socio-economic class, cultural values, and even personality traits. However, if everyone is to prosper in a digital society, it will be important that all children and young people are encouraged to develop these digital skills, so they can utilise the technologies of tomorrow.


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Government Transformation Strategy 2017 to 2020: has it been worth the wait?

Whitehall, London

By Steven McGinty

On 9 Feb 2017, and after over a year of delays, the UK Government finally published the Government Transformation Strategy 2017 to 2020.

It’s been a long time since the Government Digital Strategy was published in 2012. Therefore, it’s understandable that politicians, industry leaders and media commentators have been frustrated by the lack of a new strategy in 2016.

In January 2017, Iain Wright MP, chairman of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee (BEIS) warned that the UK risked being left behind and losing its competitive advantage in the digital economy because of its ‘absence of clarity and strategic focus’.

Similarly, Stephen Metcalfe, chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, wrote a letter to digital minister Matt Hancock highlighting his disappointment at the lack of a government digital strategy.

However, now that the Government Transformation Strategy is here, what does it say and will it have a lasting impact?

A brief overview

According to Ben Gummer, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, the Government Transformation Strategy is:

“The most ambitious programme of change of any government anywhere in the world, by a government that has already done more to transform itself than any other.”

It sets out the government’s aim to build on the success of the 2012 strategy, and to not only focus on improving the citizen experience but to change the way services are delivered. The strategy states that the government will achieve this by transforming:

  • Whole citizen-facing services – ensuring an improved experience for citizens, businesses and users within the public sector
  • Full government departments – enabling organisations to deliver policy objectives more flexibly, improving citizen experience, and working more efficiently
  • Internal government – supporting the collaboration of government departments and delivering digitally-enabled change more effectively

However, the majority of the strategy is structured around five main objectives:

Business transformation

Government departments have made significant progress over recent years.  The strategy explains that lessons have been learned through this service transformation process, and that there is now cross-government agreement on the key areas that transformation must focus on. These include bringing policy development and service design closer together and recognising that government services are delivered through a variety of channels (online, telephone and face-to-face).

Grow the right people, skills and culture

Since 2012, government departments have been recruiting digital, data and technology specialists to improve their digital capability. However, the strategy accepts that the public sector is working in a competitive market and that recruiting and retaining staff is likely to remain a challenge. Embedding a new culture is also identified as an important enabler of change, with several goals highlighted, including increasing civil servants’ knowledge of digital and improving digital experts’ understanding of government.

The Digital Academy, which was formed in 2014 by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), will be transferred (by the end of 2017) to the Government Digital Service (GDS) to create nationwide training opportunities for civil servants.

Build better tools, processes and governance for civil servants

Civil servants vary widely in how they work, including the digital technologies they use and their approach to policy development. The new strategy explains that the government will create a better working environment by developing common and interoperable technologies that can be shared across government and adopt a more agile working environment.

Make better use of data

Data is vital for providing services that meet the needs of citizens. However, the strategy emphasises that the government must earn the public’s trust in managing data safely, securely, and ethically.

Create shared platforms, components and reusable business capabilities

The government has already had some success in introducing shared platforms, such as GOV.UK – a publishing platform which brought together over 300 government agencies’ and arm’s length bodies’ websites within 15 months. The strategy outlines the steps to be taken to encourage the development of new technologies, including leaving large single contracts with IT firms – a practice which is deemed a barrier to providing better technologies for civil servants – and purchasing from a wider variety of suppliers, such as SMEs.

From digital to transformation

It’s important to note that the strategy’s title has changed: from a digital strategy to a transformation strategy.

Jane Roberts, strategy director at Kable, suggests that this reflects the government’s realisation that digitisation is not a process with a defined end date, but a ‘constant dynamic ongoing process.’ Government, says Roberts, now understands that digitisation involves more than just moving services online, and that whole scale change is needed, from encouraging civil servants to work more collaboratively (including sharing cross-governmental data), to digitising back office processes.

In addition, Roberts also highlights the need for digital services to be designed to cope with this dynamic process. This includes supporting the integration of new technologies – particularly those related to the Internet of Things (the use of internet technology to connect everyday items) – and responding to increased citizen demand for greater control over their personal data.

What does it mean for local government?

The Government Transformation Strategy makes no comment on the challenges facing local government. However, London Borough of Camden councillor, Theo Blackwell, suggests that the strategy leaves scope for a ‘digital settlement’ to be developed between central and local government. He observes that the strategy:

leaves the door open for this discussion to be starting and concluded in short order, kickstarted by elected mayors and combined authorities in May 2017, and building on the groundwork of the last two years”.

Mr Blackwell also sets out what needs to be done to achieve this digital settlement:

  • Support the ‘coalition of the willing’, as well as improvement – encouraging local councils who have already made progress with digital transformation to work together, as well as helping struggling councils to improve;
  • Open platforms and a new market for start-ups – enabling the development of platforms and smaller start-up companies;
  • Shared Resource – developing partnerships between local councils and central government, which fund digital initiatives jointly.

Missed opportunity

The strategy has also received a significant amount of criticism for its lack of detail and limited commitments. Independent digital analyst, Jos Creese, has described the strategy as:

“…a mix of re-packaged principles and refreshed ‘transformational government’ themes, coupled with some new but not revolutionary ideas.

Creese argues that there is a general lack of pace with government programmes, such as with GOV.UK Verify – an identity assurance platform that allows people to prove who they are when using government services. And – unlike Theo Blackwell – Creese believes that the lack of collaboration between central government and the wider public sector is a missed opportunity (particularly as 80% of public services are outside central government). In his view, the strategy should have addressed some of the fundamental challenges facing local services, such as healthcare and crime prevention.

Final thoughts

Although the Government Transformation Strategy has received a mixed response since it was first published, there are certainly positives which provide hope for the future. Firstly, it was important that the strategy was finally published to provide a clearer indication of the government’s future direction.  Secondly, in the coming months, the government will have the opportunity to provide greater clarity, and set out how they intend to achieve the praiseworthy objectives of the strategy and realise the full potential of digital transformation.


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The Carnegie Trust and the Wheatley Group: showing us how we can tackle digital exclusion

By Steven McGinty

As the government pushes towards ‘digital by default’, a policy which envisions most public services being delivered online, it’s worth remembering that 20% of the UK population still lack basic internet skills. Groups such as Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) have raised concerns that ‘digital by default’ could significantly impact on vulnerable and marginalised communities, particularly those claiming welfare benefits. However, if every citizen had basic digital skills and could use online government services, it could save the public purse between £1.7 and £1.8 billion annually.

So, which groups are the most digitally excluded?

According to the UK Government’s digital inclusion strategy, digital exclusion occurs among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups in society. These include:

  • those living in social housing (approximately 37% of those digitally-excluded live in social housing);
  • those on low incomes (44% of people without basic digital skills are either on low wages or are unemployed);
  • those with disabilities (54% of people who have never been online have disabilities);
  • older people (69% of over 55’s are without basic digital skills);
  • young people (only 27% of young people who don’t have access to the internet are in full-time employment).

What are the main barriers to using online services?

In 2013, the Carnegie Trust carried out research into internet access in Glasgow. The findings suggest that there are three common reasons why people never go online:

  • the comfort of doing things offline (34% of people cited their preference for speaking to people on the telephone, or in person, as the reason they don’t go online);
  • a fear of digital technology and the internet ( 28% were worried about issues such as using technology and staying safe online);
  • the costs involved (20% of people highlighted pressures on incomes and the cost of internet connections).

What are the main drivers for people going online?

More recently, the Carnegie Trust carried out a new piece of research, replicating their Glasgow study in two new locations: Dumfries and Kirkcaldy. The study investigated the main reasons people choose to go online. The findings show that:

  • 56% of people went online to find information of interest to them;
  • 48% went online to keep in touch with friends and family;
  • 44% thought it would be an interesting thing to do;
  • 44% had to go online as part of their work.

 How can we encourage people to go online?

Both Carnegie Trust studies show that each individual’s journey to digital inclusion is different and that a ‘personal hook’ or motivation, such as the opportunity to communicate with family members abroad, is an important tool for encouraging digital participation.

Additionally, they also show that friends and family are an important source of help when people are taking their first steps online. For instance, the case studies in Dumfries and Kirkcaldy highlight that people would appreciate help from ‘trusted intermediaries’ or local groups.  Therefore, it’s important that digital participation initiatives make use of existing communities’ networks and tap into the support available from friends and families.

Wheatley Group

The Wheatley Group, which includes Scotland’s largest social landlord, the Glasgow Housing Association (GHA), has been heavily involved in addressing digital exclusion. They have developed a digital strategy to help social tenants access the internet and are committed to proving free or low cost internet access (maximum of £5 per month).

The Group has also been involved in two pilot projects: one which provides technology to 12 low-rise homes, and the Digital Demonstrator project, which tests the feasibility of low-cost broadband in multi-storey blocks. The pilot projects highlighted two important lessons:

  1. the role of the local Housing Officer was key for engaging with tenants
  2. it was important that communities and neighbours learned together.

In an ideal world, every citizen would be digitally literate, and be able to interact with government online. However, this is not the reality. The work carried out by the Carnegie Trust and the Wheatley Group provides a solid basis for developing digital initiatives and ensuring that citizens and communities are not left out.


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