Report: Blog: Digital exclusion

September 16, 2021 by Accounts Commission

The digital divide - inequality in a digital world

By Tim McKay, Interim deputy chair, Accounts Commission

The global pandemic has changed how we see and use digital technology for work and learning, accessing services and connecting with others. It has also brought recognition that not everyone has the digital tools needed to participate and thrive in the modern world.

Digital exclusion is experienced by those who do not have access to an appropriate digital device, an affordable or reliable internet connection or the right skills to be able to use digital tools.

While home internet access in Scotland has increased steadily in recent years, to a high of 88 per cent (Scottish Household Survey, 2019), there are inequalities in both access and use between different groups and communities. Households in the most deprived areas or with a low income have low rates of home internet access. For internet use, generational issues persist, with older people less likely to use the internet. And for those with health conditions, both physical and mental, again much lower rates of internet use are evident.

Infographic visualising inequalities of digital access

While home internet access in Scotland has increased steadily in recent years to a high of 88%, there are inequalities in both access and use between different groups and communities. 96% of households in the 20% least deprived areas have internet access compared to 82% in the 20% most deprived areas.

For households with an income of less than £10,000 pa only 65% have internet access compared with almost all, 99%, with incomes more than £40,000 pa. And while the gap has closed, generational issues also persist with 66% of over 60’s using the internet compared with 99% of 16 to 24 year olds. For adults with some form of limiting long term physical or mental condition only 71% use the internet compared with 94% of those with no conditions.

These inequalities are stark.

The Accounts Commission has committed to focusing on equality. It underpins all our work. We recognise the unequal impact of Covid-19 and how it has amplified existing inequalities.

Our Digital progress in local government report, reported how Covid-19 had exacerbated digital exclusion, recommending that councils identify and address barriers and inequalities to make sure that no one is left behind. It said that councils need to understand the needs of those experiencing digital exclusion and put a strategy in place to ensure equity and access for all citizens and communities.

Our joint report with the Auditor General for Scotland on Education outcomes also highlighted how the impact of Covid-19 and the school closures it brought about have been influenced by the personal circumstances of children and young people. Those experiencing poverty and deprivation were particularly affected by their access to digital resources. While the Scottish Government and its partners took action to address this digital gap, the report commented that it took time to implement these new measures.

We expect that councils should improve and take advantage of digital technologies to transform how they operate and deliver better outcomes for local people and communities. But no one should be left behind. For councils, having a more detailed understanding of digital exclusion will be important. How is it affecting the lives of different groups? What solutions are needed to make sure people can access and effectively use digital tools? And what does it mean for digital public services, given that many of those with a greater reliance on public services are less likely to have access to and use the internet, particularly given the closure of public libraries during the pandemic?

Citizens should be at the heart of public sector recovery and digital transformation. Making sure they can participate through having the right tools and skills is important, as is understanding their needs and involving them in service design.

We welcome the new Scottish Government and COSLA joint digital strategy which has signalled a commitment to tackling digital exclusion: 'Geography, background or ability should not be barriers to getting on-line and benefiting from digital technology'.

We also recognise the support that individuals have received through the Connecting Scotland programme, launched in May 2020, and the support for school pupils to access devices and data packages, and the joint work with councils in working towards this.

Our future focus on digital exclusion will be two-fold. We will look at how well councils understand and are addressing digital exclusion in their communities. The Accounts Commission will also look at how well councils understand the needs of individuals and communities, as well as the ways in which they are involving them in designing digital public services.

These will be key elements in our work programme going forward as part of our wider focus on inequalities.