Reflections on what might have been
I have developed a view that the National Digital Inclusion conference was, primarily, an event for Ministers. It was an opportunity to understand that Digital Inclusion is a real issue, that there are quantifiable benefits to come from a digitally included society, and that there is some Ministerial credit to be had by being actively engaged with the digital inclusion agenda.
The conference was also about celebrating success. I’m all for that and there was a lot of success to celebrate and quite right too. However, try as they might, nobody got any closer to the real nub of the matter – the final third, or the final 29%. The “too hard to do” pile didn’t seem to get any smaller and the “yes we can” pile grew not one jot.
That said, the best ideas often come from the most surprising places, the workshops threw up some hope for us all. There were interesting presentations from all though Jayne Nickalls was at somewhat of a disadvantage in that her client group is seen as government departments rather than the people receiving the services on offer. Stephen Hilton gave an interesting description of the kind of journey a local authority goes through in finding ways to engage with its citizens and the peaks and pitfalls along the way. Chris Batt was able to pull us back into the realms of new ideas by reminding us of what had been written a while ago but was still relevant and David Banes gave a convincing demonstration of how technology can aggregate the thoughts of a group into a single, thought provoking presentation. Jeff McWhinney from Significant reminded us all in an excellent presentation that there need be no barriers and with one person to sign our responses and one to speak his signs gave us an interesting insight not only into the benefits that ICTs can bring but also into the real difficulties that people with disabilities can face. He gave me one of the best sound bites (sign bites?) of the conference – “Deaf people are on the other side of the glass”.
What came out of this workshop? Well, for me, two things. Firstly, the idea of disaggregation of function from the core to the place where it is easily accessed by the target group. Secondly a reminder that personalisation is the key and ubiquity, when it finally arrives, will promote the capability for personalisation. Ubiquity will work better in a disaggregated world.
A colleague sitting nearby said that these were old ideas and that they would never happen because there wasn’t a political will to do so. To some extent I think that he’s probably right but this doesn’t mean that we give up on them, these are ideas that have been around for a while and so have some sustaining credibility about them.
There were one or two presentations in the workshops that didn’t hit a chord with me. Robert Blackwell from Simply Digital gave a presentation on the advantages of TV over IP services. It didn’t work for me for two reasons: one, it was the second presentation on this kind of technology that I’ve seen in a week. Yes it’s good, but it’s not unique and it’s at its best in high density areas; two Robert has the unfortunate salesman like style that presents it as the answer to a maiden’s prayer – this may be unintentional – but his tick box slides worried me just as all “answers” do. Peter Cruickshank gave a presentation on e-petitions. it didn’t do it for me because the really interesting stuff was at the bottom of a couple of his slides relating to empowerment and social capital building and he skimmed over them in less than a sentence while he scrambled through the process diagrams – building capacity so that people can feel empowered and will become activists through petitioning their council is a very powerful thing and this was an opportunity lost. Finally, Swatee Deepak, and it grieves me to be even slightly critical of so much enthusiasm and achievement but on line access to volunteers is really about people who are already digitally and socially engaged. There is a place for this, which is undoubtedly great work and offers a real understanding of how to target a young audience but I didn’t see this as being about digital inclusion – more about benefits for the digitally included – sorry!
Hats off to the team that did the final workshop and pulled together all of the ideas that went into the final sesssion of the conference – the manifesto for inclusion. Finally we started to get closer to the things that need to be done to get to the final 20%.
Michael Lewis, Service Birmingham
Carolyn Hassan, Knowle West
Stephen Hilton, Dc10 and Bristol
David Banes, AbilityNet
Tom Steinberg, MySociety – his “angry young man” presentation didn’t quite do it for me but perhaps that was me.
So what’s in the Manifesto for Inclusion?
There are 4 sections and within each a number of BIG ideas:
21st Century Learning
•Entitlement to Digital Skills;
•National Volunteer Network;
•Learning Leaders; Open debate with DIUS about innovation being brought forwards and the informal learning white paper.
•Use trusted intermediaries;
•Innovative use of broadcasst media;
•Promote awareness amongst decision makers;
•Promote multi channel access; Don’t duplicate, replicate and scale.
Health and Wellbeing
•Sousveillance – rapid, real time public information;
•Tele-health – real care, not just information about care;
•Public Resource- data and experience open sourced and shared; Appropriate technology – simple, universal access.
•Local Authorities, raise awareness;
•Technology, free up information;
•Disability and aging population – national digital advice service;
•Ethnicity – develop local, community forums on e-engagement; disadvantaged communities; support people to produce engaging content.
WHAT! I hear you cry, this is all old stuff! Yes it is but now its mainstream stuff and that’s the big difference. This was a conference of practitioners attended by ministers and these activities that were once the preserve of activists and sector workers are now in the mainstream – I think we should celebrate that as the biggest success of all.
Which brings us to the future; what should happen next? When Matthew Taylor closed the conference with an invitation for next year I had a concern that another two days of celebrating success over the 71% (or will it be 75%) of engaged citizens would be re-played. This must not happen and so I have a couple of suggestions. Next year’s conference must concentrate on the things we cannot do, that we find hard, that we need to approach differently.
I propose that we have the first half day to celebrate the achievements, it’s important to do that. For the remainder of the conference we should focus on the “too hard to do” pile and we should start the process of thinking well outside of the box. It’s time we left our comfort zone.
I suggest a twin track conference one for LSPs and Commissioners and one for practitioners. There should be active engagement of the third sector with special rates for them to attend and targeted items on one day so that they don’t have the expense of a two day event.
I also suggest a slightly different format with an opportunity for fringe events and small, privately sponsored workshops so that individual projects can present their work to interested audiences.
There were a couple of emergent themes that I think should underpin the “out of the box” approach needed next time:
Innovation: We all know Einstein’s definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Do we really understand what it is to be innovative? The recent Vienna Report has a great sound bite “I2 Inclusive technical innovation and Innovative Inclusive Policies”. Where do innovative ideas come from and what is the journey that they go on? Do we understand innovation or do we oversimplify? Is there a place for horizon scanning?
Entitlement: What is people’s entitlement and do the VCS have a role in this?
Scalability, Duplication versus Replication: How do you break string without scissors? What is the best way, local up or down to local, how do you scale small ideas?
Empowerment: Doing it with not doing it to. Is there a difference between activism and empowerment? What is the role of locally created content? People can be supported to be producers.
Value: Lord Reith’s approach was giving the people what they need, not what they want. What is the role of Value chains in social inclusion? How do you add value in a knowledge society? What is the value chain? How do you create value? How do we connect advocacy to information? Is this adding value? What is the real value of partnership? Is the holy trinity of service design VCS/CVS + LA/LSP + empowered citizens?
Disability: What is the disabled experience? CLG have published a number of profiles on Adults with Learning difficulties and people who use mental health services. How do we bring these to life? What’s it like to be on the other side of the glass?
Access: Is Access still an issue? Should infrastructure be part of the debate? Should we talk about rural in a separate context?
There should be rules for next year’s conference:
Rule number one – Just because you had a good experience doesn’t mean you have the answer. Present the experience, not the solution.
Rule number two – No PowerPoint slides with tick boxes.
Rule number three – there should be no exceptions proving the rule. We should celebrate success but not at the expense of ignoring the hard to do pile.
Rule number four – remember that the biggest consumers of public services are those people whose lives are most chaotic.
And finally Esther, the conference was closed by Baroness Andrews who announced further funding for the DC10 Plus network and a working group for Registered Social Landlords. Hooray! See my previous blogs and remember, you heard it here first. 🙂