Government 'overestimating digital skills', report says

computer use©

GOVERNMENT plans for 'digital by default' services are severely overestimating the quality of the UK's digital skills, a report released today by Citizens Online says.

The digital inclusion charity says that although more than 80% of the UK population is online, 60% lack one or more of the core digital skills that they'll need to actually access Government and other core services online.

"There is growing evidence of a digital skills deficit emerging, with many people only able to engage in very basic activities online... These 'core' skills link to employability, gaining personal benefit from the internet and the digital by default agenda," the report says.

The disparity between official estimates and real skills is a result of the patchy availability and delivery of digital skills programmes, the report says.

"Twelve years of research, grass roots and cross sector working lead us to conclude that a systemic approach to digital skills is the only way to achieve a sustainable and flexible outcome," the authors say.

Hey Gov, get IT together

Citizens Online is perhaps best known for running its own digital skills programme Get IT Together, in partnership with BT and advice organisations local to the areas where their projects run.

The "systematic" "joined up" strategy to getting more people online that Citizens Online are suggesting, then, might also be expressed as: "hey, Government: give us some more money to get this done".

That's not necessarily a criticism, however since, at least based on this evidence, the UK's digital skills projects look to be extremely fragmented and, in many cases, not all that useful.

Take that '80% online' figure.

Internet use, according to Ofcom

internet use

SOURCE: Citizens Online report, available here [pdf].

That's from an Ofcom survey which asks people whether they are internet users, which is clearly different from having basic online skills.

In addition, Citizens Online say, their research looking at clients including the Department for Work and Pensions shows that centres assess digital skills in really different ways, from a few questions to a test on a PC.

Most use a self assessment and, since people tend to be bad at reporting their own skills, the number of people in need of further digital training is being consistently underestimated.

As Universal Credit continues to limber up for its nationwide roll out this matters more than ever: people that don't have basic digital skills are simply not going to be able to access the new system.

Ongoing support

A key recommendation of today's report is the need for ongoing help, not just a one off course.

A 2013 survey found that 3% of people now report being ex internet users, suggesting that a significant proportion of people who are offline are there having 'fallen back' after getting help.

20% of Get IT Together clients end up 'offline' again within a year of finishing a course, most citing lack of ongoing support.

[Digital projects are] a postcode lottery, there are various short term funded projects with different priorities/target groups/locations but there is little opportunity at the moment for the projects to come together to share good practice and develop sustainable solutions.
Digital skills practitioner, Northern Ireland

The report also notes that getting skills help is a postcode lottery: different areas are using different methods to identify, reach and help those with poor digital skills.

Persuading people online

Last week, BT released a report claiming that the benefit of being online, for someone starting to use the internet for the first time, is £1,064.

They came to that conclusion by adding up benefits including financial savings on services like energy, improved employment opportunities and, oddly, "reduced feelings of isolation and improved confidence".

These surveys, of which there are many, are similar to 'research' showing how much more people pay because they have poor credit ratings (here's an example): they're based on almost nothing and, while they're presumably supposed to spur people into action, they simply highlight how nebulous the benefits of 'getting online' or 'improving your credit rating' are.

Today's report does the opposite, it shows that information alone isn't going to be enough to nudge people into better digital skills, even when the benefits include getting your benefits through Universal Credit.

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