Working hard to improve the lives of digitally excluded people in Oxfordshire

People across Oxfordshire who suffer disadvantages in terms of their access to the digital world will receive better support thanks to a new strategy put together by the county council with strong help from a wide variety of partner organisations.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the county council and others became ever more acutely aware of the need for people from all ages and backgrounds to have access to digital services to lead a full and independent life.

The pandemic and the need for quick access to important information, booking COVID vaccination jabs online or even reporting a positive test brought a stark spotlight to these issues.  

The county council’s cabinet approved a new digital strategy at its meeting on Tuesday, 19 July.

Councillor Glynis Phillips, Oxfordshire County Council’s Cabinet Member for Corporate Services, said: “Some people have poor Wi-Fi and broadband connection and some people have none, while others are hampered by inadequate equipment or limited knowledge.

“In the second decade of the 21st century, huge parts of our lives are based on immediate access to services and information online. We would be stunned if we went back to the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s in a tardis and saw how our lives and our whole way of doing things have changed.

“Like many councils we’ve been updating our strategy to reflect the different needs that digital access now has to meet. But we in Oxfordshire have gone about it differently. There was already some help available to people who had become digitally excluded in the county but it was fragmented, with organisations saying similar things and making similar offers but without much co-ordination. 

 “We realised that the key to making a real difference was to engage with partners across the public, business and voluntary sectors – working together to support our emerging strategy and having a much bigger impact in future months and years.  

“We knew we would have a much greater ability to reach those who are digitally excluded and provide greater support if we could coordinate our efforts.

As a council, we recognised that each organisation in the voluntary and community sector, private, public, education and health sectors have their own challenges, and are accountable for their own digital inclusion activities. However, if we could align our work through a digital inclusion charter, we’d be in a far better position to make a real difference to residents’ lives. We are glad to say that this is where we are now!”

How did this unique level of co-operation come about?  

In October 2021, the county council held a virtual roundtable discussion with approximately 35 partners from various organisations including health, education and the voluntary sectors. In this session, it was defined what digital inclusion means to people in Oxfordshire and partners set out the problem that needs to be addressed.

There was also discussion around a vision for a digitally inclusive county, which included joined-up initiatives and digital inclusion by design. There was a noticeable determination on the part of all organisations to come up with plans that meant nobody would be left behind.  

The discussion also covered challenges and barriers that need to be overcome, including funding, duplication of resources due to a fragmented landscape, rurality (Oxfordshire is the most rural county in the south-east), online safety, and the cost of living crisis.  

The principles that were identified as needing to underpin collaborative work included signposting access to support; sharing best practice; promoting the benefits of digital; embedding equality, diversity and inclusion; and recognising that digital inclusion is about people not just technology.  

In April 2022, the county council undertook a further programme of engagement with partners based on themes, such as education, isolation and local businesses. There was also a specific focus on groups who are more likely to be thought of as digitally excluded – elderly people being one example.  

Crucially, interviews were held with service users who have lived experience of digital exclusion, or using our online services, to understand barriers in our service delivery and their insight was invaluable. County council staff also articulated their experiences.  

In early June, there was a digital inclusion summit with a range of partners and, as a result, it was agreed to draft a digital inclusion charter for Oxfordshire.

Cllr Phillips added: “There’s already a strong base to build on. We have a digital infrastructure strategy to ensure that Oxfordshire has great connectivity and a dedicated team that has overseen residents’ access to superfast broadband grow from 69 per cent in 2013 to over 98 per cent today.

“Many of the council’s other strategies – including our local transport plan and our libraries and heritage strategy – have digital inclusion issues hardwired into their thinking.  

“If we could time travel into future years, we believe our current joint planning and thinking is putting us in a great position to make digital exclusion in Oxfordshire largely a thing of the past. Organisations across Oxfordshire are not so much singing from the same hymn-sheet as from the same app.”