UK Digital Strategy: A Roadmap for Digital Inclusion?
by Dr. Eszter Czibor, Head of Research
The UK’s Digital Strategy, published on the first day of the London Tech Week, aspires to build a new digital economy that is, first and foremost, “more inclusive”. Using a framework for evaluating inclusive innovation policy, we explore the extent to which this goal is reflected in the details of the strategy, and the role of public-purpose technology in delivering it.
Digital exclusion, faced by people with very low digital skills and/or insufficient access to the Internet, poses an enormous threat to the vision of an inclusive digital future. The strategy mentions various ways in which the government is responding to this challenge, from DfE’s digital entitlement to DWP’s Claimant Commitment and DCMS’s network of accessible locations offering free Wi-Fi and digital support through public libraries. While these initiatives are important, the Good Things Foundation urges the government to go further: “For many adults in the UK, digital inclusion is not just about skills and jobs – it’s about being part of a society and economy that is leaving them behind. Sometimes, it’s about survival”.
Another key challenge related to participation in the digital economy is the lack of diversity in the UK’s digital workforce. The underrepresentation of women and members of minoritised groups in the sector is damaging from a fairness and equity standpoint, and it stifles innovation by wasting talent and ideas. The new strategy lists notable initiatives to address this issue, including scholarships for people from underrepresented groups to participate in AI and data science conversion courses to develop new digital skills or retrain. While these programmes are popular and the scholarships have succeeded in attracting diverse talent, the amount of support pledged in the strategy does not match the scale of the problem: the further 2000 scholarships to be delivered between 2023 and 2025 feel like a drop in the ocean considering the number of data roles in the UK. Details of the plans to “encourage employers to include a more diverse range of candidates in industry’s vision of the digital workforce” will need to be further developed.
The strategy celebrates the UK tech sector’s dynamism and its crucial role in spurring growth and creating employment opportunities. It also recognises the need to spread these benefits more equally across the UK, and outlines approaches from funding for “interventions in […] local communities based on […] local priorities” to digital infrastructure development and new Innovation Accelerators based in the Glasgow, West Midlands and Greater Manchester regions. It would be great to see even more examples like the Local Digital Skills Partnership Programme that brings together employers, regional academia, and local public sector and service providers to develop targeted programmes.
The role of public-purpose technology
It is also important to look beyond economic growth and to consider the potential wider benefits from technological innovation, when applied to tough societal and planetary challenges. From improving public services to supporting net zero and improving medical treatments, the strategy lists opportunities to use digital technology for the public’s benefit. There are also other areas that received less attention where public-purpose digital technology could deliver gains for many, including infrastructure and the built environment, and mobility (for inspiration, visit our database of high-quality public-purpose tech startups addressing major public needs).
Who is involved in setting the priorities?
The new strategy recognises and addresses various risks arising from the use of digital technologies, most notably security threats, the potential harm to children and vulnerable users, and the spread of disinformation. It also contains different examples of partnerships with private sector partners, industry consultations, as well as valuable third-sector collaborations. There is less emphasis, however, on directly involving citizens in the design and decision making process required for our digital future. More focus on building citizen trust and participation would be welcome: as the Ada Lovelace Institute so powerfully summarised, “despite the immense potential of data driven technologies to make our lives easier, more prosperous, more convenient, and more environmentally friendly, there is a real risk that the digital revolution is developing a legitimacy problem”.
We need to recognise that technology is never neutral, and find real ways to keep the community at the centre of technology development and deployment. Only then can the UK’s new digital strategy truly succeed in creating a more inclusive digital future.
Learn how parliaments can engage digital technologies to be more inclusive here.
Join the discussion on the future of PPT on our substack, The New PPT.
To work with StateUp on public-purpose technology and inclusion, contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org.