Education and skills report

Digital inclusion in Ireland

Secretariat to the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) Anne-Marie McGauran discusses the council’s recommendation for a national strategy for digital inclusion.

McGauran recently authored a report that looked at connectivity, devices, and skills in relation to digital inclusion in Ireland and argues that a digital inclusion strategy would help address the digital needs of groups who remain poorly engaged with digital technologies, namely those who are older, poorer, and with lower levels of education.

McGauran stresses that a focus on the needs of people in these key groups would build on Ireland’s large investment in broadband connectivity and critically, would help to combat social exclusion in the long term.

“Aiming for full digital inclusion is the next logical step to build on Ireland’s large investment in broadband connectivity, and in eGovernment. International studies show that the return from such investment in digital inclusion is high. From a social cohesion point of view, such investment aims to ensure that digital divides do not persist, and so helps to combat social exclusion.”

Explaining the premise of digital inclusion, the policy analyst says that everyone can contribute to and benefit from the digital economy and society. For the individual, this means having “convenient, reliable access to affordable, accessible digital devices and an internet connection”. For businesses, it is about the spread of digital transformation to all enterprises.

The pandemic has added an additional layer to the importance of digital inclusion, accelerating the reliance on digital and its importance for social inclusion. This accelerated reliance has occurred against a backdrop of greater digitalisation in the form of the fourth industrial revolution and Ireland’s large investment in broadband.

“Everyone needs to be enabled and equipped to work in this new labour market and those least-well equipped are most likely to be left behind,” says McGauran, highlighting research from the UK, which suggests a £15 return for every £1 invested in digital inclusion.

McGauran outlines the main dimensions of digital inclusion and some of the challenges associated with them, namely:

  • Connectivity: An improving issue across Ireland but one which remains a problem in rural Ireland and poorer communities;
  • Skills: Content literacy and technical skills, both of which require constant updating;
  • Devices: Cost is a major factor in either device absence or outdated models; and
  • Confidence: The confidence to engage with the digital world.

While the pandemic has accelerated use of the internet, obvious gaps remain. McGauran’s research shows that in 2020, 25 per cent of over 60s hadn’t used the internet in the last three months, a similar picture for 16 per cent of those on the lowest income quintile. On connectivity, only 79 per cent of the west of Ireland had fixed broadband connection in 2020 and 73 per cent in the border region.

Assessing public services, the NESC report shows that even amid the pandemic, only half the population seek government information or download government forms online. For businesses, a stark figure is that 40 per cent of companies, mainly indigenous SMEs, completely lack digital technologies, while a further 30 per cent have few digital assets.

McGauran points to a range of existing policies and programmes, ranging from an upcoming renewal of the National Digital Strategy, the implementation of the European Electronic Communications Code to domestic law, and the recent National Strategy on Adult Literacy, Numeracy and Digital Literacy. Domestic policies and programmes are supported by a range of EU programmes, such as WIFI4EU and the EU’s web accessibility directive.

“The report highlights that there are several State policies focused on digital technologies. There are also a range of state agency, business, and community programmes. There is a need to coordinate across these policies and programmes if digital inclusion is to improve,” she says.

Highlighting that a review of Irish policies and or international best practice suggest an agenda for policy action to address the varying levels of digital inclusion in Ireland, McGauran believes that pursuing this agenda will help to “better prepare individuals, the economy, society and the public service for a more digitised future”.

The five overarching recommendations outlined by the NESC report are:

  1. develop a national strategy for digital inclusion, with a key focus on coordination, and with a strong commitment to fine-grained measurement of progress;
  2. create a comprehensive framework for digital skills progression;
  3. support digital inclusion at community level;
  4. deliver targeted supports for material access to key groups; and
  5. enhance guidance for digital and assisted-digital public services, and ‘complementary’ channels.

The policy analyst welcomes the use of DigComp, the digital reference framework developed by the European Commission setting out 21 competences, grouped in five key areas, over eight proficiency levels, to best describe what it means to be digitally competent, in the National Adult Literacy, Numeracy and Digital Literacy Strategy published in September 2021. Other commitments in this Strategy will help address the recommendations in the NESC report on creating a comprehensive framework for digital skills progression.

Concluding, McGauran says: “The council believes that, while digital inclusion should be part of a national digital strategy, there should also be a stand-alone Strategy for Digital Inclusion. Such a strategy can provide a shared direction and responsibility, coordinate existing work, highlight and address gaps, and allow for collaboration of statutory bodies, businesses, and communities. It could include specific targets and target groups, and a focus on connectivity, skills, material access, and the provision of public services to those who are not digitally engaged.”

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