Talking Point: No one should be left offline (The Mercury Newspaper)

We are not doing enough to address the digital divide, says Adrienne Picone.

CHANCES are you’re reading this on your phone, laptop or another digital device.

For many of us, it’s hard to imagine life without almost constant access to the internet. Banks, retailers and service providers are all surfing the same wave by moving more of their activities online.

Governments are also moving more services online, as demonstrated by the investment in digital health and Service Tasmania’s digital services portal. In short, access to the internet is now essential to participating in daily life.

But thousands of Tasmanians can’t participate in these activities online because they either don’t have access to the internet, can’t afford to connect or simply don’t have the digital skills required to navigate what they need to do online.

A yearly national report card, the Australian Digital Inclusion Index, shows Tasmania regularly trails the rest of the nation on digital inclusion. And with Tasmania’s fragmented approach to addressing the digital divide, we are unlikely to see much improvement in these poor results on the national digital scorecard set to be released next month.

The ADII measures three things: access (connection), affordability and ability. Some parts of Tasmania fare worse than others and LGAs with the lowest score on the index are also traditionally those that record poorer outcomes in other key markers, such as average income, level of schooling and health.

When you think about how crucial internet access is to finding and engaging in work, education and health care, being digitally excluded compounds other forms of disadvantage.

The consequences of digital exclusion for our economy and community are being acutely felt. So much so that the Premier’s Economic and Social Recovery Advisory Council (PESRAC) devoted an entire chapter in its final report to the issue of community connectivity and engagement, with several recommendations focused on improving digital connection. A key recommendation of the report was setting clear whole-of-government KPIs for closing the digital divide within the next two to five years.

The Tasmanian Government has taken small steps to increase digital access and ability, namely establishing a digital support platform with coaching support, as well as providing devices and data for public school students who otherwise can’t engage in digitally based learning at home.

But according to Tasmania’s performance and accountability experts, the Tasmanian Audit Office, the government is not doing enough. A report released in June found that “responsibility for digital inclusion is currently fragmented and spread across various government agencies”. It reiterated PESRAC’s recommendation to take stronger action by setting “KPIs and timelines for closing the digital divide”.

TasCOSS echoes these calls. As well as KPIs, our consultations with industry, government, academia and consumers led to broad support for the establishment of a digital consumer reference group to advise on initiatives to close the digital divide.

Given the fragmented approach to digital inclusion and lack of progress on delivering PESRAC recommendations, this cross-sector group is best placed to identify solutions to digital exclusion among different consumer groups.

So far there has been no response from the government to this proposal. And the minister appears to see no need for further action, citing Tasmania’s incremental ADII improvements year-on-year as evidence of “continuous improvement.” This defence fails to acknowledge that the rest of the country is improving at a much faster rate.

In the meantime, thousands of Tasmanians continue to be locked out of essential activities, such as schooling, employment, health care and social connection, with all of the flow-on costs to our economy, society and wellbeing that digital exclusion brings.

We urge the Tasmanian Government to recognise this and commit to addressing recommendations and provide greater investment in digital inclusion measures to ensure no Tasmanian is left offline.

Adrienne Picone is chief executive of the Tasmanian Council of Social Service.