Digital technology permeates all aspects of our lives, and the statistics confirm this: the UN estimates roughly 3.5 billion people were online by year-end 2016, with the value of e-commerce in 2015 topping a mind-boggling USD25 trillion. All of which is to say not having access to the internet comes at a steep cost in today’s world.
Whether the term employed is digital divide, digital equity or digital inclusion, they all express the extent to which people lack this access. And it is increasingly clear for policy makers the world over that governments must be able to develop policies to ensure everyone has equal access to the digital tools necessary to thrive in contemporary society.
It is in this vein that France’s Minister of State for the Digital Sector, Mounir Mahjoubi, commissioned a report on digital inclusion from France Stratégie. As its title suggests, the report, The Benefits of Better Digital Autonomy (Les bénéfices d’une meilleure autonomie numérique), identifies and measures the advantages of mastering digital technology for French citizens lacking online access in everyday life.
No less than 14 million French citizens, or 28% of the population, have difficulty using digital tools. Of these individuals, 16% never use the internet, and 12% have limited computer skills. Not surprisingly, age and socioeconomic status play a large role in determining the level of an individual’s digital skills: more than half of the people who don’t use the internet are over 65, with a whopping 84% having low levels of education. In short, if a person is retired, unemployed or has a low income, there’s a good chance they’re shut out of the virtual reality that is increasingly driving the economy.
The European Commission’s Digital Economy and Society Index suggests this predicament results from a broader digital context. Indeed, when it comes to connectivity, human capital, the use of the internet, integration of digital technology and digital public services, France’s composite performance is less than middling: out of the 28 EU countries, it comes in a lacklustre 18, behind Portugal and the Czech Republic (topping the list are Denmark, Sweden and Finland, with Bulgaria, Greece and Romania bringing up the rear).
The report singles out the digital economy, employment and training, government services, and social inclusion and well-being as four areas where improving citizens’ digital skills could generate substantial monetary gains for the French economy. It then outlines the benefits that would come from helping a third of the target population in each area over a period of 10 years.
For the digital economy, which the report defines as both e-commerce and the collaborative marketplace, training a third of the target population to purchase goods and services on the internet and use online platforms could generate roughly €60 million for the former and upwards of €390 million for the latter.
With respect to education and training, studies have shown that use of the internet has a positive impact on success at school. In the US, for example, while providing schools with more computers per pupil has had mixed results, giving children their own computer has been shown to have a positive impact on academic success and reducing inequality (there is one computer for every 1.8 pupils Stateside, compared to one for every 2.9 pupils in France).
The annual financial gain resulting from training 300 000 French pupils with poor online skills over 10 years would be around 10 million euros, according to the report. As to training the same portion of the working population, an additional 120 million euros could be generated.
Unemployment levels can also be lowered by training both those at risk of losing their jobs and the jobless in the use of digital tools. The authors, economists Antoine Baena and Chakir Rachiq, calculate that the resulting reduction in unemployment could translate into 100 million euros per year of purchasing power for the unemployed. What’s more, the government could save the same amount on unemployment insurance, and the drop in frictional unemployment (i.e. the time spent searching for and changing jobs) could be equal to 180 million euros in the pockets of the jobless and an equivalent amount for the government.
Government services are the third area that can stand to benefit from increased digital inclusion. Citizens being able to carry out administrative formalities online represents a wellspring of savings for the government, not to mention advantages for those using such services. The report posits that helping a third of the target population carry out such procedures online could produce 150 million euros in savings per year. For users, the time saved could amount to the equivalent of 50 million euros.
The final area where enhanced digital skills could greatly benefit people and the economy, social inclusion and well-being, encompasses healthcare, online services and social capital (i.e. the relationships an individual maintains with others). The report estimates that if e-health services allow a third of the target population to avoid one doctor’s visit per year, patients could save some 10 million euros and the government health insurance programme around 20 million euros.
As for training citizens to use the internet for services such as banking, the authors put forth the time saved could represent some 200 million euros. Training a third of the target population to use social networks and text messaging could also help these people be more connected with their family and friends and reduce social exclusion, which is estimated to yield a benefit of 50 million euros in monetary terms.
Concretely, achieving the benefits outlined in the report means training or accompanying about 4.7 million individuals (a third of the 14 million digitally challenged) to use digital tools and, as mentioned, would result in an overall annual gain of 1.6 billion euros for the French economy (excluding the value of the increase in social capital).
To be clear, France is hardly alone in grappling with the challenges digital technology poses – challenges that are set to be transformational for the global economy. Not even countries leading the way are spared. Case in point, 14% of the Swedish population struggles to master digital tools, and 9% don’t have internet at home. In response, the government has not only simplified online administrative procedures and provided free training for beginners, it has also created spaces where citizens can get help in person.
In the end, though the projected monetary gains from enhanced online skills are anything but chump change, the authors stress digital inclusion is primarily about equity, equal opportunity and social cohesion – ideals that governments cannot afford to neglect.
 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) (2017), Information Economy Report 2017, United Nations, Geneva.