It feels like we have only just had a Federal Budget, a night where we watch and wait to see what policies and programs have been committed to by the Australian Government, and yet last week we were again busily finalising our Pre-Budget Submission!
2020 highlighted the digital divide in this country like no other year, and without urgent action, this divide is at risk of becoming even wider.
With the impact of COVID-19, unemployment and underemployment rates have risen, seeing more people out of the workforce while the pandemic-led digital revolution is taking place. Even before COVID-19 saw a rapid digitisation in workplaces, it was anticipated that by 2030 over 90% of jobs will need digital skills and 45% will need more advanced digital capabilities. Significant advancements have been made in digital health during the pandemic, with the rapid rise of telehealth. However, by October, 92% of telehealth consults were still occurring by telephone rather than through video conferencing. Additionally, the combination of the bushfires and the pandemic has highlighted the risk of misinformation rapidly spreading online, which can cause real-world harms.
And, while 2021 has brought with it a great deal of hope that some of the challenges of last year will start to be behind us, the recent COVID-19 outbreaks and WA bushfires have reminded us that the digital inclusion issues that these crises highlight are not yet solved.
We see a digitally included country being one where everyone can equally participate in the rapidly transforming digital economy. It means being able to connect with friends and family, find a new job, work from home, access health services and quickly find trustworthy information, even in times of crisis. Ensuring everyone is capable and confident to get online safely and have the skills to participate in the digital economy will continue to be a high priority issue for governments to respond to.
In August we advocated that the 2020-21 Budget supported the extension of the award-winning and successful Be Connected program and that the program was expanded to also reach adults under 50 years at risk of digital exclusion. We also advocated for ongoing community-based digital health literacy programs and ensuring everyone in the country has access to affordable, internet-connected devices.
When the Budget rolled around in October, we were excited to hear that the Be Connected program was extended for three further years, an announcement equally welcomed by our network of over 3,000 community partners.
Again this month we have looked to the digital inclusion challenges around us, and identified three main areas that we recommend the Australian Government focuses on in the 2021-22 Budget in order to support our communities to recover from the pandemic and become digitally resilient participants of the digital economy:
- Provide funding for community-based essential digital skills programs to ensure all Australian adults are work-ready for the new economy. Particular focus needs to be given to supporting women re-entering the workforce, small business owners, people with disability, Indigenous Australians and CALD communities.
- Extend community education programs so all Australians have the skills to adopt telehealth and digital health initiatives. Community-based digital health literacy programs have supported people during the pandemic to manage their health and wellbeing using tools like My Health Record, and find reliable information online. As the health landscape rapidly transforms, more support is needed to maximise uptake of telehealth and government health initiatives.
- Establish digital media literacy programs targeting adults with low digital capability to reduce online harms and prepare for emergencies. Locally delivered but nationally coordinated community education programs are needed to support vulnerable adults to safely navigate the online world, find reliable information (particularly in a crisis) and understand how to report harms and keep their families safe online.
Of course, there are many other challenges we need to address in order for all Australians to benefit from getting online, and programs that can be developed to support people most at risk of being left behind. For example, as a member of the Australian Digital Inclusion Alliance, we also support the call for a national digital capability framework from which programmatic success can be measured. We also know that we still need to ensure that everyone in this country has affordable access to internet-connected devices at home.
What our Pre-Budget Submission recommends is that the Australian Government invests in community-based programs to give more people the capability, skills and confidence to participate in the digital economy.