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Listening to the voices on digital exclusion

by Kyle Scott, CAS policy officer (Strong Communities team)

This column was first published in the Herald on 5 September 2022. 

Over the past three years Scotland’s Citizens Advice network has pulled out all the stops to ensure that, no matter the issue, you have an accessible advice service that delivers for you. Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, around 1 in 5 people who came to us for help have made some sort of financial gain, with an average value of over £4,400; that is no mean feat.

I’ve been working at CAS for almost three years, and it was clear to me from the start that I was essentially working to put myself out of a job. That might sound daft, but the ethos here is that it’s better to prevent detriment from occurring in the first place than to help people after they’ve experienced harm. So a key part of our work is to understand how and why people experience problems. 

There are 59 local CABs in Scotland. And on top of the excellent face-to-face advice they provide, they also work to provide insight into the problems their clients are facing. Recently, Nairn CAB and a group of Glasgow CABs undertook research to understand the causes and consequences of digital exclusion. Their qualitative research captured the experiences of digitally excluded clients from both rural and urban settings. It identified the barriers to digital access, then considered how these impact on peoples’ ability to engage with essential services, and how the problem can be effectively addressed.

The voices of those experiencing digital exclusion are often under-represented. With the use of digital services now more important in the lives of consumers than ever, it is crucial that their perspectives play a pivotal role in shaping current and future policy.

Both of these pieces of research found that the costs of getting online were a significant hurdle, with the price of devices and tariffs preventing many people from using online services. This in turn prevented them from accessing services, such as applying for universal credit or using price comparison sites to reduce household expenditure.

Participants highlighted how online-by-default pathways to welfare services resulted in them losing out on financial assistance. Many felt that the drive towards digital by default was penalising them. People reported increased feelings of being left behind – in addition to existing barriers of being financially vulnerable, disabled, or unemployed.

These issues were and are compounded by the current cost of living crisis, with participants reporting they’d missed out on savings by being unable to switch utilities or financial service providers, or struggling to find options to contact providers using non-digital means. 

Essentially, participants said that the major barriers to getting online came down to two things: cost and skills. It’s too expensive to go online but that’s also where everything important occurs. And when people can’t afford to get online, they’re unable to learn the skills that allow them to do so with confidence.

The Citizens Advice network will always be there for those who need help accessing essential services, be these digital or not - as we have been for over 80 years. But if digital is to be the default way of accessing essential services, the barriers of affordability and skills must be resolved in order to ensure no-one is left behind.