Three months ago, Socitm set out to understand in more detail the work that councils were doing on digital inclusion across England. We did this in partnership with the Local Government Association (LGA) and a working group of councils. Specifically this was to look at how outcomes were being evidenced.
One of the aims of the work was to seek out good practice. Another aim was to inform the creation of a national return on investment tool. This tool would help councils to better understand the overall benefits of investment in inclusion activities. This includes financial, social and environmental benefits.
Focus on existing initiatives
The research focused exclusively on existing initiatives rather than doing primary research. This generated inputs from more than 40 councils and from organisations working in, or on, digital inclusion across the public sector.
Given the scale of activity underway, we were hopeful of finding a rich seam of evidence-based initiatives. We also wanted to use the learning from these to find a way of better evidencing return on investment that could be scaled.
What’s become clear through the course of the project is that there is, for most councils, a gap in measuring and evidencing impact. There is however a significant amount of activity under way and the targeting of this is often evidence based.
Initiatives such as the Digital Exclusion Risk Index created by Manchester City Council, which uses 12 different indicators to assess the risk of digital exclusion, are a great starting point for identifying potential need. It has risk scores available for every area in the country. Typically however the evidence base stops at the initial risk assessment stage.
The existing evidence
Even where councils are measuring potential impacts, the methodology in use is often not strong. For example, some councils have calculated the average contacts that may be needed with a council in a year and the cost reduction if these took place digitally. While there is likely to be some relationship between digital inclusion and council service usage, the evidence base isn’t strong enough to scale.
Similarly, where councils are recording improvements in digital confidence, this doesn’t necessarily then lead to a actual end benefit as a result.
Instinctively it’s logical to assume that as a result of digital inclusion there will be benefits to:
- the public purse
- the economy
This is given the increasing number of daily jobs that require digital skills and the near universal use of social media for remaining connected to family and friends.
The digital skills gap
A report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee estimates that the digital skills gap costs the UK economy £63 billion a year in the lost potential for additional gross domestic product (GDP). Previous reports to the same committee from PWC have indicated the personal impact of exclusion, including households missing out on savings of £560 per year from shopping and paying bills online. People with good ICT skills earn between 3-10 per cent more than people without such skills.
Addressing digital exclusion is undoubtedly the right thing to do for all these reasons and more. So are councils not measuring the impact of local interventions because: they don’t have:
- the skills
- the resources
- the will to do so
Or is it just in the ‘too difficult’ box?
What councils told us
Conversations with councils reveal a mixed picture. Some councils have told us that they simply don’t know where to start to be able to accurately measure impact. Others admit to ‘just getting on with stuff’ given the known need, accepting that some of the interventions may work, and some may not.
Resourcing is also a factor. In general, the councils that have strategic leadership in place supporting inclusion activity, with dedicated resources assigned to delivery are more targeted in their approach to identifying need. They are also more likely to be thinking about ways to assess and evidence impact than those that are looking at inclusion at only individual service level.
There’s also a complexity factor to consider. This is partly to do with the fact that human behaviour is not always logical. It doesn’t always follow that providing access, connectivity and skills will lead to behaviour change. Also it is not easy to measure the actual impact of inclusion activity. This is given that the impact on health and wellbeing or job prospects may only be realised years later.
An improved evidence base
Our focus has now turned to what can be done to lay the foundations for an improved evidence base over time. This is due to the lack of recent and relevant evidence to create and scale a national return on investment (ROI) tool. The focus is also making sure that the rich information we have captured can be shared across the sector.
Our research indicates that digital inclusion information is easily available but uncoordinated and not brought together well.
Digital Inclusion Toolkit – a single point of information
As one council put it “seeing the wood for the trees is really difficult when we don’t have much time to start with”. Councils have told us that they want:
- ‘a single place to go to’ to for best practice
- a place that brings together examples from across the sector
- a place that encourages re-use
Councils can then build on each other’s successes and learn what works and what doesn’t.
Given the investment that has already been made in the digitalinclusionkit.org one of our recommendations is that this platform becomes the ‘go to’ point for digital inclusion in local government. We will be uploading new content from our research over the coming months, along with content from other contributors.