Cesi n'est pas une pipe

The National Digital Inclusion Conference 2010 (NDI 10) was a better conference than last year. This was in part due to the involvement of larger numbers of individuals and groups that are engaged in delivery and in part due to the organisation of the event which was much more open than last year. Martha Lane Fox gave a presentation that was a rallying call: keep it simple and don’t become a self perpetuating industry, halve the size of the conference year on year as the need is met. Despite everything, NDI 10 still failed to achieve its potential.

There were emerging gaps that became apparent on day one that by day two were seemingly impossible to cross. On one side the clear Government message that digital inclusion was about efficiency and being able to deliver services to the most vulnerable in society to help tackle disadvantage. On the other side the dedication of the groups and individuals who help the different sections of the communities in which they operate to become digitally engaged. Between the two, there was me,  with a distinct feeling that I was in the wrong place. I wasn’t alone, but I wasn’t where I thought I ought to be.

Finally, I had a Grumpy Old Man moment. It was brief and, I confess, to the point but on reflection it symbolised the space between us. The session on Digital Participation was looking for promises. What simple thing could we promise to deliver that would have an impact on digital inclusion. The suggestion was that we make the registration of school place preferences a compulsory on line exercise and then support parents through the school to do this. This would be such a rewarding experience that parents who were previously disengaged would see the potential and become digitally included.

I had a number of problems with this suggestion. Firstly, it fails to recognise that the school community is the community of the school, it is not the wider community. Secondly, it positions the school as the mediator between an individual and a government service.  Is this why we have schools?  What symbolised the gulf between us most was the unspoken declaration that we could not find a compelling enough reason for individuals and groups to want to use digital channels and so we had decided to resort to compulsion by statute. If the great digitally unwashed couldn’t understand then we would force them, using their children’s education as the blunt instrument, to become digitally clean.

The tipping point was when the Chair of the panel smiled and one by one the members of the panel thought that it was a good idea, one of them, and I won’t name names, even used the word “great”. Whether it was serendipity, or kismet or whether I willed it to happen, the microphone came to me next – and the rest is history.

What happened to empowerment, communities in control, transparency, the use of technology to improve the life chances of citizens? These are the reasons I felt that I was in the wrong place. It was digital inclusion, but not as we know it. It was as if the argument had to be reduced to its most fundamental constituents. Why was this? Was it because we were all considered too simple to understand the wider benefits of digital inclusion? Has the government changed its mind? Is it no longer interested in the use of technology to empower individuals and communities? Has it come down to this: get poor people and old people on line, any way we can, so that we can reduce the cost of delivering services to them?

I believe in the potential for digital technology to contribute to improving life chances. Empowerment enables a voice, that voice can tell life stories and those stories can inform service design. Empowerment can create the conditions for collaboration and through collaboration communities can innovate and deliver some of the services that can no longer be delivered by government. Access to data through technology has the potential to make the function of government transparent and serves to improve the quality of our democracy. It is in these ways that we improve life chances, not by making it cheaper for government to deliver services as they always have.

I know that digital inclusion is not a magic bullet but equally I do not believe that digital inclusion is a means of doing the same thing but doing it for less cost. I know that there needs to be a starting point, I do not believe that the coercion of citizens into participating in centralised service delivery is the right one. People have disengaged, they have done so for a reason; they have created networks of support that reflect their beliefs and meet their needs more appropriately. Re-engaging them with a wider community through digital channels alone will not work. By simply constructing a digital facade over the thing from which people disengaged in the first place we will not create an inclusive society.

NDI 10 seemed to have lost sight of its long term vision, it missed an opportunity to restate that vision and chose instead to focus on a series of promises that will not bridge the gap but will maintain the divide. Will NDI 11 be a smaller conference as Martha Lane Fox suggested? Yes it will, It’s unlikely that I will be there, and I suspect that next year, once again, I will not be alone.


5 thoughts on “Cesi n'est pas une pipe

  1. LMFTO
    Another point they failed to acknowledge is that until it is easy to get online the people won’t wash. What is the point in telling them to bathe if the only water they can access comes through a dripping tap, or like people around me they have to take the family or work laptop to an area where they can download updates because they take too long on home dial up? a chap near me needed open office for his business, his connection said it would take 47 hours to download it…
    Until we have the fibre opened up and lit everywhere, and ubiquitous access for all, we will never succeed in our goals for inclusion for everyone.
    Conferences like this are the elephant in the room. Martha is right, but its not in her remit to fix it. You are right, but you can’t either. Only by keeping on blogging, tweeting and talking can we influence the ‘powers that be’ and get them to see sense.

    I agree, the #ndi10 conference missed a golden opportunity to make these valuable points. Too many folk with their own agendas missing the bigger picture. Too much waffle.
    We need grumpy old men.
    and grumpy old women like me.
    We need moral fibre. And optic fibre to provide the connections that just work.
    Once the internet is available for all and not just the lucky few near an exchange or a mast there will be no need to get them online. They will get online themselves. We didn’t build roads and give people free cars. Same with the internet. The old boys network is missing the whole point, and its about time they got IT. keep grumping.

  2. In a world where digital exlcusion reflects social exclusion – it may be too much to hope for more rational solutions to the issue than we have been offered for the underlying social problem. No-one ever really asks the subject of our discussion what they want – we might presume they are too scared to ask the answer might surprise – but we expect the excluded to put up with shorter lives, with less access to employment, to health, with worse education and transport and no power to influence events.
    What does this group need to get digitally engaged – simple low cost access, real economic and social benefit from engagement and no more penal regimes to force compliance. Engaging through school – you wonder how many schools in serving excluded communities they have spent time with. Getting any parents to engage is difficult (aside from us over-anxious middle classes)!

    You have to ask what we as a society want to achieve – if we don’t want to pay for and organise social and digital inclusion it wont happen. These groups are excluded from the government and market already. Decades of charity has not changed social exclusion it will not shift digital exclusion.

  3. I wasn’t at NDI10 this year, but what you say does reflect the disquiet I have about some of the conversations that are going on at the moment.

    It’s an interesting example that was used in school admissions, and it does highlight two seemingly incompatable incentives for engaging with people online. Firstly, we want to push (predominantly) poor people online so that transactional government services can be done cheaper. Secondly, we talk about having more meaningful conversations between the public and providers of public services – which will not be cheap and at its most successful would be highly disruptive.

    It seems that on that panel the former is what was suggested; make everybody apply online and imagine that you will make digital converts out of the coerced. The latter would be when you have, for example, an online mapping tool which shows you which local schools you would have got into in previous years and for that to inform you about your choice. Of course, this would also be a demonstration of how educational chances are defined by where you can afford to live and could be used by citizens to argue against the way the system is currently set up.

    I’m currently working in Birmingham to promote Home Access Grants to parents. This is a scheme that fits solidly in the “provide the technology and the benefits will flow” school of thought.

    Being optimistic I see plenty of parents who know precisely why they want to take up the offer of connected digital technology from the government. You’ll be unsurprised to hear that nobody has told me they want a Home Access computer so they can do online schools’ admissions next year.

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