1. Mr S Lain-Rose presented a series of slides which set out the rationale for developing the study and its key elements and design principles. Mr Woolmer highlighted the effect of the pandemic in exacerbating digital exclusion, especially for a number of sectors of the population, including older people, residents of rural areas, the homeless and people for whom English was not their first language. 1 in 3 young people did not have access to their own device. Key barriers to good digital connectivity included confidence and system capacity. Mr Woolmer, Mr Lain-Rose and Ms Z Cooke responded to comments and questions from the committee, including the following:-
a) the concise report and the strategy were both welcomed as being clear and inclusive, emphasising the strategy’s holistic nature and emphasis on the need to respond to local needs;
b) concern was expressed that consultation on the strategy used the internet, which immediately excluded anyone who did not have access to it. Mr Lain-Rose advised that consultation was also undertaken by use of leafleting homes, and that an engagement skills team had been tasked with engaging sectors of the population who were hard to reach. In addition, some people chose not to be online, and the aim was not to force them to engage online but to encourage them by demonstrating the benefits they would gain by doing so;
c) asked who would have ownership of the strategy and would deliver it, and how it would be used to address identified issues, Ms Cooke advised that the stated aims of such a strategy needed to be honest and realistic, it needed to target the most in need by working with partners, such as district councils and clinical commissioning groups (CCGs), for example. The most in need would include those who were unable to complete school and college work at home or were unable to access online systems to claim living benefits;
d) it would be interesting for Members to be able to see data from districts to see how their local areas fared and to compare broadband performance in areas of the county. It was known that 96% of the county was connected to broadband but that did not mean that every area had access to fast broadband; speeds varied considerably, and account needed to be taken of residents’ scope, not just to connect but to maintain a connection. The County Council could look into how it could engage with local planning authorities to encourage developers to build broadband into new housing, alongside other required infrastructure. Ms Cooke advised that countywide analysis could be made available to Members so they could compare areas. She also advised that joint working to address broadband provision was not necessarily an issue of funding but of good partnership working. Kent was unique as a local authority in that it had the Kent Public Service Network (KPSN), which could help greatly in addressing digital inclusion;
e) currently, fewer than 0.2% of GP appointments were conducted online, and to be able to show an increase in this would be a demonstration of the value of increased digital inclusion. Similarly, telecare was not yet being used to its full capability but would be another way of showing residents the benefits which could be gained from using technology;
f) concern was expressed that some people could feel pressured to use online services where they might find that difficult, for example, having a medical consultation online rather than in person. For many, face-to-face engagement was the only way they felt able to tackle health and personal issues, even if an online appointment would be quicker to arrange. People would need to be confident that they could still expect to get good service without using online methods. Mr Woolmer reassured the committee that the strategy set out principles and priorities and sought to build awareness rather than impose new behaviours. There were already good links with CCGs, Job Centres, etc. Ms Cooke advised that face-to-face transactions cost more than online ones, so the strategy sought to make people aware of this rather than to impose any specific behaviour; and
g) asked about the spend so far on rolling out digital inclusion, for example, in identifying and addressing barriers such as skills shortages, and how the new role of Director of Technology would lead the roll-out, Mr Lain-Rose advised that, from an allocation of £1.5m, £71,000 had been spent so far, and he undertook to provide more detailed information about the breakdown of the spend to the committee after the meeting. Ms Cooke advised that the new Director of Technology would lead on County Council technological development and would work with the KPSN.
2. It was suggested that updates on the development roll-out of the strategy be submitted to the committee annually, and it was planned that these would start in June 2022.
3. It was RESOLVED that the development of a corporate strategy for digital inclusion and capability which is:
a) led by the County Council’s Digital Lead (Digital Inclusion and Capability);
b) corporately owned by Strategic and Corporate Services, as outlined in Section 2 of the report; and
c) designed based on the principles outlined in Section 3 of the report,
be endorsed, and that detailed update reports be submitted to the committee on an annual basis.