As a caseworker of three years at Z2K, there has been a long-standing pattern of clients with issues relating to online services. Commonly, our clients struggle with Universal Credit journals, online Housing Benefit portals, and social housing transfers. It’s very apparent that the first and most significant barrier to accessing such services is a digital one. It can be disheartening as a welfare and housing adviser, to encounter this repeated injustice experienced by my clients. Personally, I find it, above all, frustrating that encouragement, effort and education isn’t widespread within our communities to progress digital inclusion and basic technology know-how.
On a macro scale, it points to the interminable imbalance of power between local and central government versus those who need its support. Given the ever-increasing demand for Social Security and housing, it makes logical sense for digitalization. However, without the input of service- users themselves, how can the move to online facilities be realistic and most importantly, all-inclusive? With such unwavering goals to be more “streamlined” and “effective”, the DWP and local authorities have sacrificed their purpose of welfare provision for the sake of their own ease. Digital exclusion isn’t a new problem and of course Z2K aren’t the only ones to notice it. The 2019 Office for National Statistics (ONS) report, for example, identified over 5 million “internet non-users” in the UK and 20% of people with ‘zero’ or ‘limited abilities’. And the divide deepens when comparing with disabled adults. In 2017, 56% of adult internet non-users were disabled. Compared with non-disabled participants, nearly double (29%) indicated that the reason for not going online was a lack of skills and knowledge compared with non-disabled (15%).
A further disparity lies in socio-economic status. A recent UK Parliament report found that households with “an annual income of >£50,000 are 40% more likely to be able to carry out basic digital tasks than those earning less than £17,499”. Lloyds Bank established further that over one-third of UK benefit claimants have “very low digital engagement”.
The recent “Set Up To Fail” report from Money and Mental Health further highlights the pitfalls of designing a digital system (Universal Credit) without the input of service-users. The report finds that vulnerable people are struggling to make and manage online claims for benefits. Worryingly, they are also unable to secure and access third-party assistance because of the flawed design of explicit consent under the current system. Again, this demonstrates the glaring necessity for an understanding of the diverse needs and requirement of those accessing Welfare and for wider provision of support with online services.
Barriers to digital accessibility have been acknowledged by this Government in part, and some efforts have been made to improve the provision of internet and devices. This Government have also encouraged internet courses via Good Things Foundation and has apparently invested £8 million into its “digital boot-camps” and its “Skill’s Toolkit” scheme. (Ironically, these are all provided online). However, the fact remains that the outreach of these initiatives is not good enough and not reaching those who need it most.
It’s not all bad news though. These reports have provided an encouraging base to define and establish the scope of digital exclusion on which to build comprehensive courses, guidelines and dedicated teams to assist. Echoing the summary of the Lloyds 2021 report, “it is increasingly difficult for (those who remain digitally excluded) to make the transition online without significant sustained support”.
I would be remiss to not also consider the ethnic backgrounds of many of our clients at Z2K. For instance, the worthwhile research into barriers to digital engagement conducted by Lloyds, didn’t cross-reference its findings with cultural factors. To go even further, a more nuanced approach to improving engagement in computer courses for ethnic-minority households would surely bring as many people into the digital age with ease as possible. Such findings may show the need for stronger local authority involvement and, where permitted, in-person or paper format courses. Additionally, consultations and involvement from community and religious leaders may also be a significant step towards greater digital inclusion.
These provisions are practical, achievable and above-all, necessary, if we wish to ensure a generation of disabled and low-income households have full and unimpeded access to the Welfare State. In the meantime, we will continue to fight on behalf of our clients to improve accessibility to the welfare and housing systems.