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Letter to Minister Clark - An urgent call for government investment in digital equity basics.


In response to calls from leaders in the digital inclusion community concerned with the glaring omission of any support of digital inclusion in the government budget, on the 29th of July, DECA delivered a letter to the Honorable Dr David Clark, Minister for Digital Economy and Communications, requesting investment in digital equity basics.

DECA's government advocacy group would like to share this letter with the wider community:

Tēnā koe e te Minita,

Government investment in digital equity basics is urgently needed.

Digital Equity Coalition Aotearoa (DECA) is a coalition of diverse groups and people working to achieve digital equity in Aotearoa. Our members include local initiatives making digital participation accessible, individuals passionate about digital inclusion, organisations that deliver digital skills training and programmes refurbishing laptops. We are connected to philanthropists, engaged corporates, central government agencies and local government. Our mission is digital equity.

We were very disappointed to see no new money in Budget 2022 for digital equity. And to learn that temporary support, for devices and internet connections through the Ministry of Education and digital inclusion support through libraries, is being turned off. The effects of these decisions are already being felt in our communities, for example with people being turned away when they go to their local library for help.

DECA would like to help you make the best case possible for Budget 2023, and suggest some temporary fixes to bridge the gap while policy and implementation work is done.

Where government needs to invest

We need enduring and sustainable government investment in the digital equity basics:

1. Affordable internet access for New Zealanders on low incomes.

Currently a very large number of households can’t afford the internet access they need at home (or on the go). While there are some equity products on the market, engagement with those impacted shows they do not meet the needs of those on lower incomes who are currently missing out. There are a number of reasons for this: limited space on towers for wireless solutions like Skinny Jump, not enough data for large families or to use data hungry applications needed to access online health or education, and credit history can make it impossible to get a plan.

We think the affordability problem can be addressed through government subsidies or welfare payments, and working with the telco sector to better understand barriers the regulatory environment creates when looking at equity products and solutions. The cost of the subsidy option will be high. But the return on investment in terms of avoided social costs makes it well worth doing (we understand independent advice on this is winging its way to you shortly). If the most logical government agency isn’t up for handling the subsidy side of things, this could be done through an NGO if sufficient resources are provided. However, this would take more time and the set up costs would probably be higher. MSD is the better option.

Whatever you do here, the outcomes need to be equitable and mana enhancing. Enough internet access to enable people to learn and work from home, keep connected to friends and whānau, access e-health and government services, provide for large families, and make the most of the opportunities in the digital economy. This lines up with your digital inclusion goal in the Digital Strategy for Aotearoa, where all New Zealanders have what they need to participate fully in the digital world. Not just those who can afford it.

Our Affordable Connectivity Constellation (which brings a mixture of community and industry perspectives) has developed a number of options for base services and price points that it is currently consulting on. These cover what is needed in the home, when people are out and about and open access in a community. We can share this material with you and your officials. Our recommendation is that a community, government and industry co-design process is needed to make sure you have a good handle on use cases and the packages needed. This needs to happen sooner rather than later.

2. Getting devices to people who can’t afford them.

The work of DECA members involved in device programmes over the past few years has shown the huge need for device support. These charities and community organisations are only able to meet a fraction of the demand with the resources they have. We think there are two options for government support for adults. Government could use its procurement lever to negotiate discounted prices with suppliers, with subsidised (and in some cases, free) distribution through community organisations who know who is in need. Alternatively through the welfare system, as part of a digital inclusion payment if you are setting this up for connectivity. For younger New Zealanders, we think it makes sense for the Ministry of Education to support device provision where schools and kura require their use and have specific requirements.

Again the equity lens is important. The type of device needs to meet needs and accessibility requirements. And enough devices for everyone in the family who needs one. We are talking about laptops and tablets. In most cases a phone will not be sufficient for equitable digital access.

3. Digital skills support through community organisations.

Funding is needed to run digital skills training in communities, to produce resources these organisations can use, and to build capacity within communities to do the training themselves. This needs to be closely connected to device provision as you can’t learn the skills without a device (we talk more about the connections below). A common language for digital skills, through a basic digital skills framework, would also be helpful. So providers know what they are delivering to. These frameworks exist, and some work has already been done, so you don’t have to start from scratch. But we do need to ensure the framing works for our communities and matches up with the skills they need.

4. Wrap-around support to get and stay connected.

For people new to the digital world, providing an internet connection and a device and the offer of a digital skills course will not be enough. They will need ongoing help from people they know and trust to take up the offer, select a provider, navigate the set up, and troubleshoot if things go wrong.

All of this needs to be brought together in a package delivered through wrap-around support providers in communities, with an NGO intermediary supporting and funding a network of providers. Wrap around support providers would be the first point of contact for people in communities (and would be from those communities). They might also deliver devices and skills raining, or be closely connected to the other organisations who do. The wrap-around support provider could also help broker internet connections with telcos and subsidies or payments from government. The Ministry of Education has been trialling this approach with Manaiakalani Education Trust.

We appreciate you will need to think about eligibility criteria and priority cohorts. We think you need to start by supporting those on the lowest incomes.

Interim supports while the policy and implementation work is done

It will take some time to set all this up, but it is what is needed for enduring digital equity. In the meantime interim government support is needed to ensure vulnerable New Zealanders have digital access. We recommend:

- Continuing to provide internet access and devices to whānau in need through the Ministry of Education. This would mean extending the Equitable Digital Access programme which is due to finish at the end of the 2022 school year, until the whole-of government plan is in place. The Minister of Education would need assurances from other ministers that they are supportive of a longer term approach for affordable connectivity, and that funding would be provided to the Ministry to extend the programme. This would be a conversation for your Digital Ministers Group.

- Asking government agencies to direct laptops and tablets to community device recycling schemes when they are due to be replaced. We appreciate ministers can’t interfere with operational decisions, but some strongly worded letters of expectation could do the trick here.

- Extending the digital inclusion funding for libraries, which recently came to an end. This hasn’t been budgeted for so would require some departmental reprioritisation.

- Getting existing support available from MSD to as many people as possible (empowering/encouraging case officers to do as much as they can within the existing

system, and making people aware of the support on offer).

- DIA and MBIE engaging with telcos to work out a way to co-fund some interim supports for connectivity, digital skills and wrap-around support. The industry players are aware of the problem and want to help. This could bring the whole sector together to address short term need and potentially open the door to a collaborative long term solution. The DECA Affordable Connectivity Constellation can help with this.

Engaging with digital ministers and other fora

Getting everyone on the waka can be challenging. It can help to have the voice of lived experience sitting beside you. DECA could help by bringing together a panel of our members to speak to a meeting of the Digital Ministers Group. An invitation from you as Chair would be very welcome. We also think it would be useful to get digital equity on the agenda for the Tripartite Future of Work Forum, to provide an opportunity to engage the Minister of Finance and the Prime Minister.

The question of system leadership

We understand you are currently considering advice on the question of system leadership for digital inclusion. We think there are two key things to address:

- Resourcing an agency to coordinate across government, with funding and a bit of clout (from Cabinet) to get other agencies on board. The coordination role is important because every agency has an interest in digital equity, but none have overall responsibility. This leads to issues falling between the cracks.

- Being clear (again through the Digital Ministers Group and Cabinet decision) about which agencies are responsible for delivering what in the digital equity area. For

example, once government decides to address and invest in affordable connectivity (fingers crossed) saying which agency is leading on delivery, and the agencies who need to contribute. It is a major source of frustration for NGOs when government is not clear on who is responsible for what.

We would very much appreciate the opportunity to meet with you and do a deep dive into these issues.

Nāku noa, nā

Digital Equity Coalition Aotearoa