miércoles, 22 de junio de 2016

An EU Digital Skills Agenda: Challenges and actions

There is a extended agreement on the need of digitising the society and the economy. It is not a matter where the countries have any room for maneuvering. Either they jump into the digitalisation wagon or they will perish in the platform of irrelevance. It is assumed that it is not possible to face the digital transformation without the previous deployment  of the right networking infrastructures. However, as important as having access to quality broadband connections is being able to reap its benefits. What is more, there is a vicious circle between the lack of digital competences and the lack of internet access, the former is the main reason given for not having internet at home.

Since 2013, the European Union is exploring different strategies to provide the right level of digital competences to the working population. The prioritisation of these efforts has been increased since the publication of the strategy for the completion of the Digital Single Market. To be more concrete, "a human capital ready for the digital transformation with the necessary skills" is considered one of the cornerstones of the roadmap for "Digitising European Industry - Reaping the full benefits of a Digital Single Market".  Following the recommendations of the European Parliament, digital competences will be part of the New Skills Agenda for Europe to be published on the second half of 2016.

The first step to develop an EU digital skill agenda is reaching an agreement on the objective, on what is the definition for the digital competences that we would like that the population will have. An starting point could be the definition provided by the European Parliament in its 2006 recommendation

"Digital competence involves the confident and critical use of Information Society Technology (IST) for work, leisure and communication. It is underpinned by basic skills in ICT: the use of computers to retrieve, assess, store, produce, present and exchange information, and to communicate and participate in collaborative networks via the Internet."

Although the definition need a refurbishment in order to update some of its wording, it is still a base good enough for starting the dialogue on the issue. For instance, "communication" is needed both at "work and leisure" so probably could be dropped from the definition.

As with any public policy, once we have reached an agreement on the final goal we need to identify both challenges and actions to tackle the challenges.

The main challenge of digital competence is its polyhedral nature. There are different set of skills and not all the digital skills are equally importance for all the population. The importance of a digital skill for a citizen is given by the environment where he is going to apply it. So the second challenge for policy-making on digital competences is identifying the different scenarios where the digital skills would be useful and which subset of skills are useful in that scenario. We can basically identify four scenarios (skills at work, skills for recovering a job, ICT specialist and leisure), but these scenarios could be refined. The third challenge is the identification of the causes for not having digital skills yet. This is a thorny issue, because it is not difficult to see that both the lack of opportunities as the lack of interest has an influence on why a citizen has not adquired digital skills. Last but not least, there is the challenge of funding. There is around 40% of the population that we need to provide with some kind of digital skills, so we are facing a challenge that is equivalent with the literacy process we faced at the begining of the XX century. In the current scenario of tight public budgets, it would be difficult to find an stable source of funding for this policy. And the source should be stable because we need to face both the short-term and long-term scenarios, providing skills at school and life-long learning.

The complexity of the challenges obliges to follow a multifaceted strategy. Each group has different causes for the lack of digital competences and they need different roadmaps for its adquisition. So we need to develop different catalogues of skills for the different groups, based on its demographic profile (age, gender, rural vs urban, social class, ...) and which is the purpose that is guiding them for achieving the skills (improving his working competences, finding a new job, being an ICT professional, leisure, ...). We also need to determine which should be the priority objectives of our capacity building actions. For this aim, we need to build new tools. One possibility is building heat maps based on data analytics that combine the population demographical profile with the causes for the lack of digital competences in order to identify the areas with the bigger risk of digital exclusion. To build the kind of tools described above, we need to deploy platforms for multistakeholder collaboration and a whole-of-government approach. As the ICT is a multipurpose technology and cross-sectoral, a single deprtament would not be able to face the challenges in an isolated manner. Finally, we need to face the funding issue. The basic skills are beginning to be include in the schools curricula, but the responsibility on the life-long learning should be taken by the companies as part of its corporate social responsibility. As for unemployed who are looking for a job, the main responsibility should be for governments, but there is also a room to promote patronage and public-private partnerships in order to decrease the public expenditure.

The case for a digital skills strategy is on the table. Both we need ICT specialists (there is a lack of 900.000 in Europe) and the rest of the workers need ICT skills for his job (90% of the jobs will need ICT skills in the medium term). Having the most advanced broadband network infrastructures would be useless without power-users.

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