Digital Participation: A National Framework for Local Action

A national framework that underpins local action to help individuals and businesses improve levels of digital participation.

3. The Challenge of participation


In its recent Interim Report, Spreading the Benefits of Digital Participation [1] , the Royal Society of Edinburgh ( RSE) described access to the internet as a "right". Whilst we believe that the language of rights should be used with caution, we do agree wholeheartedly that everybody who wishes to access the internet should be able to and that it is the role of government to ensure that everybody in our society has the opportunity to develop digital skills. A world class Digital Scotland will be one in which internet access is considered as a utility on a par with access to electricity and gas, and where digital literacy takes it place alongside conventional literacy and numeracy at the heart of our education system. Access to the internet should not be considered a luxury in a modern country.

We also recognise that, in addition to the long term strategic need to build digital participation, there is a pressing imperative to help some of the more vulnerable members of our society. The UK Government's Digital by Default agenda and, in particular, the introduction of Universal Credit, is likely to impact disproportionately on those who are most likely to be off-line. As this happens, we need to ensure that the support is available to ensure that existing inequalities are not reinforced by access to the internet and that we turn this challenge into an opportunity to help people to become increasingly confident in their use of digital technology.


The business case for increasing levels of digital participation is widely known and understood. "This is for everyone: The Case for Universal Digitisation" [2] identified potential benefits for:

  • individuals - the ability to enjoy a better quality of life through improved education, health, wealth and well-being, including the potential to reduce social isolation by enabling people to stay connected to family and friends
  • small and medium-sized enterprises - the opportunity to access ¬£billions of potential incremental revenue by opening new markets, streamlining cost bases and improving customer satisfaction and retention
  • charities - the chance to significantly enhance fund-raising potential and transform operations through lower operating costs and enhanced reach
  • government - the ability to reduce costs, by making best use of existing infrastructure, cross organisational boundaries and deliver digital services that can help meet environmental goals and enhance levels of service to individuals and organisations.

The RSE looked more closely at the benefits that might accrue to individuals in Scotland focussing, in particular, on:

  • the education and training opportunities of enabling people to access online learning to supplement their formal education or enhance their skills or levels of employability
  • the healthcare benefits that flow from improved connections between healthcare professionals and patients and facilitating a shift in the balance of care through remote monitoring and home based delivery of care
  • increasing the ability to search for and apply for jobs
  • opportunities for greater flexible and remote working, with the potential to enhance the sustainability of rural communities and small towns by enabling people to remain resident within their communities rather than being forced to relocate or commute in order to find work
  • increasing social interaction - which is known to be an important preventative factor for people's health.
  • enabling the consumption of information and services by people with accessibility issues.

Progress to date

At the highest level, digital participation is measured by access to the internet. In Scotland, as in all Western European countries, such access has continued to grow steadily. The proportion of households with internet access in Scotland now stands at 76%, compared to 40 % at the beginning of 2003.

Figure 2: Proportion of households with internet access in Scotland

Figure 2: Proportion of households with internet access in Scotland

Across the world, digital exclusion is strongly associated with other forms of social deprivation. In its Interim Report, the RSE showed that Scotland is no exception to this rule, revealing a broadly linear relationship between the uptake of broadband and the Scottish Index of multiple deprivation ( Figure 3). Within the most deprived 10% of the population, broadband uptake is 53%, whilst uptake rises to 81% amongst the least deprived 10% of the population.

Figure 3: Digital Deprivation in Scotland

Figure 3: Digital Deprivation in Scotland

Those who remain offline are predominantly older, in lower income groups and likely to live in social, rented accommodation. ( Figure 4). Indeed, research by the Carnegie UK Trust has shown that amongst groups which match several of these characteristics (for example, those who are older, not in work and are social rented tenants) take-up of the internet can be less than 10% [3] . This is particularly worrying because many in these groups would benefit disproportionately from being online as a means of increasing employment prospects, reducing isolation and enabling independent living.

Figure 4: Use of the internet in Scotland by social group

Source: Scottish Household Survey 2012

Figure 4: Use of the internet in Scotland by scoial group


Scotland's ambition to be a world class digital nation demands that we achieve world class levels of digital participation. To date, our digital inclusion ambitions have been framed in the context of first matching, and then exceeding, the rates of inclusion achieved by the other countries of our islands, but we agree with the RSE that, whilst such comparisons are useful, our longer term ambitions should be framed in a more global context and that we should be aiming to match the rates achieved by countries that currently lead the world in terms of digital inclusion ( Figure 5).

Figure 5: Internet use in "world class" digital countries

Source: Ofcom Technology Tracker in Ofcom's Communications Market Report 2013 for the UK nations data and European Commission Digital Agenda Scoreboard 2013 for all European countries [4]

Figure 5: Internet use in 'world class' digital countries


Two different sources have been used to obtain the data used above (Ofcom Technology Tracker for the UK nations and the European Commission Digital Agenda Scoreboard for the other countries) and the basis upon which the data has been collected differs. The EU figures refer to households with at least one member aged 16-74, whereas Ofcom's figures include adults aged 16+.


Inevitably, the reasons for being offline are complex and personal. Most people who remain digitally excluded face multiple barriers to getting online. They may need specific support to tackle each of these barriers.

It is possible to define the main barriers to participation under 4 broad headings:

Motivation: The majority of the offline population believe that there is nothing of value to be gained by going online. They do not believe that it would enhance their life style and are not aware of the employment, financial and social advantages of being online. They feel comfortable accessing services by telephone or in person and they may have friends or family who can go online on their behalf, if required.

Confidence: Some people cite concerns about safety and security (such the ability to keep credit card details safe) as a key reason for not engaging in the online world. Others are concerned about the kind of material that might be available or have an anxiety about "breaking" the technology. The wide range of internet packages available to people in the telecommunications market can also be confusing and discourage people from seeking access. Concerns about safety and security not only stop people from going online in the first place, but also serve to limit the development of more advanced digital skills amongst those who do chose to be online.

Availability of training: Some people are unaware of the training that is available or do not know where to go to find out about such training. Others find the training settings intimidating or cannot find training that is suited to their needs. Digital skills training is rarely available from the range of different service providers with whom digitally excluded groups are already engaged and whom they trust.

Affordability: Cost remains a significant issue for many people, particularly in low income groups. People who cite affordability as the primary reason for not being on the internet often state that it is not the initial cost of the equipment which is the dominant issue, but the continuing cost of the connection.


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