The UK’s digital champion, Martha Lane Fox, has called on some of the country’s top private sector companies to get their employees’ digital skills up to scratch, in what is the first attempt to help address a £63 billion shortfall in the economy due to a lack of digital education.

As well as the founding members of Fox’s charity, Go ON UK, which includes the likes of Lloyds Banking Group, the BBC, the Post Office and TalkTalk, she also said that she would “like to see every FTSE 100 chairperson sign up to our digital skills charter.”

The charter simply asks that everyone in the UK have the basic online skills to enjoy the full benefits of the web. These skills include the ability to communicate (send and receive emails), find things (search engines), and share personal information (social, fill in a job application).

“[Go ON UK] is really working with the organisations around the boardroom table to clean up their own houses, to make sure that everybody in those organisations has the digital skills that they need to do their jobs well, to be active citizens and to get the most out of their lives online,” said Fox.

“It’s not just me going out there and talking about this anymore, it’s organisations, with shareholders, who are going to be look at this and demand whether they have done it or not.”

A new piece of research carried out by Booz & Company, in conjunction with Go ON, found that the UK economy could have benefited by an additional £63 billion in GDP had it achieved global digital leadership.

Interestingly, it also found that the annual total turnover of UK SMEs could have been boosted by £18.8 billion. Currently only one third of SMEs have a digital presence and only 14 percent sell their products and services online, according to the report.

Fox told Computerworld UK that the government also needs to play its part in bridging the skills gap, but it will be easier if the private sector is paying attention.

She said: “I think government needs to produce the best possible services it can, which helps stimulate demand and uptake. Using all the skills government has to create a massive wave of uptake is really important, to close that loop, to educate people.

“Doing this not only saves the government loads of money, but it also helps individuals.”

She added: “It’s got to come in tandem with all the companies on the Go ON team. The government listens when the corporate sector is doing stuff, they pay attention. Being able to say to government you are now looking really out of step with the rest of the market is working.”

Marketa Mach, CEO of Go ON UK, told Computerworld UK that it is important that the founding companies on the board sort out digital awareness with their employees before they go out into communities to improve skills – although this is definitely still on the agenda.

“We are starting where we are because I think in order to be in a position to tell others what they should be doing, ‘walking the walk’ is quite important. I think unless we complete that step, we would have been coming at it from a less sure-footed place,” said Mach.

“However, there is absolutely a collective commitment across the board to go out into the communities. Quite frankly the reason we assembled the partners that we have is when you look at the Post Office, it has over 11,000 retail outlets, the BBC touches 95 percent of the UK population, TalkTalk owns the value end of the proposition with regard to broadband, Lloyds has the SME market, etc.”

She added: “The intention to leverage that network is absolutely there. We are thinking about how we engage a customer in their day-to-day journey when they touch those brands.”

Lloyds Banking Group told Computerworld UK that it is taking this pledge seriously, as it believes that amongst its 100,000 employees there is certainly scope to improve digital skills.

Managing director of customers, brands, digital and telephone banking, Eva Eisenschimmel, said that Lloyd’s is already extending education outside of its four walls.

“There are people in our organisation who need this. Customer facing staff are clearly already trained, but not all our employees are customer facing. I can’t give you a number, but I think it’s significant,” said Eisenschimmel.

“We represent society with 100,000 employees, and in society there is a very large group that have never used, or are lapsed users of the internet. Our pledge is that all our employees have access to digital skills and are made aware of this access. We are going to do this through our communications machine, such as HR, briefings, line managers, etc.”

She added: “We are also going to extend the offer to four friends and family of each employee, so the reach then goes to 400,000.”