There is no silver bullet to solving the issue but research shows it is worth the effort for society at large

James Prowse

James Prowse

Digital poverty began registering as a priority issue around 20 years ago. In 2007, the European Commission reported that digital inclusion was a societal issue rather than a technological one – directly impacting on health, education, employment and infrastructure. Today, digital poverty commands the attention of leaders throughout the social housing sector, as well as government and industry.

The world is moving online at a remarkable pace. The growing ubiquity of digital technology and services is no less significant to the way we live now, than the arrival of central heating and sanitation was in decades past. Connectivity is as essential as any utility.

Now, we have the cost-of-living crisis compounding the effects of digital poverty. The crisis will affect us all in some way, but it will be most damaging for those in digital poverty.

Living without a reliable connection to the internet denies access to everyday life in the UK, as vital services disappear into the internet. It is now the case that any individual or family without reliable internet access is at a significant disadvantage in all walks of life, but especially when it comes to mitigating the impact of rising costs.

It is for this reason that, together with housing association sector charity HACT, we embarked on a project to pull together all the available data on digital poverty and social housing, as well as conduct our own research. So what were the main conclusions?

First, we need to define terms. According to the Digital Poverty Alliance (DPA), digital poverty is “the inability to interact with the online world fully, when, where and how an individual needs to”. It adds: “It exacerbates and is exacerbated by other socioeconomic, educational, racial, linguistic, gender and health inequalities. It is both the product and the cause of other forms of socioeconomic disadvantage.” Our research found that this definition isn’t shared across all housing associations.

The DPA outlines the five key determinants of digital poverty as a lack of devices, access/connectivity, capability, motivation, and support and participation. A key observation here is that this list goes beyond devices and access/connectivity. These factors are, of course, fundamental; but having these fundamentals in place is not in itself a route out of digital poverty. This is where the other factors can come into play: the skill, the will and the necessary support.

It is also clear that digital poverty remains a huge issue. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), more than five million people in the UK do not use the internet, and more than 10 million lack key basic digital skills. It is also understood that the impact of digital poverty disproportionately affects certain demographics, with social housing tenants more likely to be in a state of digital poverty than those in other tenures.

Negative impacts

In addition to measuring the size of the problem, our research sought to understand digital poverty’s most important impacts. It uncovered the top negative impacts as: the ability to access education (50%); to claim benefits (50%); to access employment opportunities (45%); the ability to access health and wellbeing support (44%); affordable energy bills (42%) and affordable food (34%); and the ability to connect with the local community, family and friends (40%).

We also looked at digital poverty’s impact on housing associations themselves. Our results show that the most important impact of digital poverty for providers is on their ability to deliver services effectively and efficiently (63%).

Other impacts cited were the ability to understand the needs of residents (57%), to gather information about and from residents (54%), and to gather information about and from homes (52%). Only 4% claimed no impact arose from digital poverty.

Then there are the impacts on society as a whole. We identified that digital poverty compounds the cost-of-living crisis by preventing people from accessing the savings available online on a huge variety of goods and services. In addition, digital poverty is preventing the country from making greater carbon savings through a lack of take-up of smart meters.

It is clear that digital poverty has a wide range of negative consequences, many of which impact all of us. What is also clear from our research is that housing associations understand that they have an important role to play in tackling the issue. In total, 83% of survey respondents stated that their organisation takes digital poverty into account when making decisions about service design and delivery.

This high proportion reflects the commitment of social housing organisations to supporting tenants’ best interests, while at the same time underlining the importance of digitalising their own business processes and services. Only 3% claimed not to know whether or not their organisation actively considered digital poverty in service decisions.

The research also made plain that associations’ concerns about digital poverty have only grown with the Covid-19 pandemic, during which ever more services were digitised. There is a concern that the impacts of digital poverty have grown over the period, supported by evidence from our survey – 77% of our sample said they were more concerned about digital poverty now than pre-pandemic. More than half of these were “much more concerned”.

Recommended steps

How that concern translates into action is key. Our research identified some excellent practice, but the overall picture is patchy. As a result, we have produced a series of recommended steps that all associations can take in order to tackle digital poverty. These range from research to understand the nature of the problem in a local area to tactics associations can adopt in order to boost engagement.

We see an opportunity to integrate digital training within community services, framing inclusion as part of people’s interests or desired skills. There is also a real benefit to be gained from providing access to straightforward devices, such as smart speakers that can lower barriers to digital engagement.

There is also clearly an opportunity for technology providers and network operators to play a greater role. For instance, we urge companies to provide social tariffs of the same high quality and speed as standard packages at a lower cost for those on a wide range of benefits. And to ensure that the application process is accessible in a variety of ways and that the tariff is promoted rather than hidden.

We are also recommending strong engagement with local authorities and social housing organisations to provide further cost reductions for those identified as particularly in need, as well as further enabling access by providing free community connections. Finally, businesses should support educational interventions through funding, provision of workshops or the creation of training resources.

There is no silver bullet – tackling digital poverty is as nuanced and challenging as tackling any other form of entrenched poverty. But what is abundantly clear from our research is that it is well worth the effort, for residents, housing associations and society at large. 

James Prowse is regional manager for social housing at Hyperoptic