Reflections on what might have been
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.