Reflections on what might have been
This is my manifesto for Digital Inclusion. It’s not “The” manifesto it’s “A” manifesto for discussion, critique, adaptation, for additions or from which to delete as people see fit. Not all the words in it are mine some are things I have read or heard. Digital Inclusion is a broad church. I have always found the definition of digital inclusion in the Digital Inclusion Action Plan as a useful starting point: “The use of technology, either directly or indirectly, to improve the life chances of citizens”. While a cynical view would be that this was intended as a political catch-all it does encompass all of those activities where digital technology can, and does, make a difference. The last two years have stood witness to an ebb and flow of initiatives and policies to a point where digital inclusion is now high on the political agenda. I have argued for and against the different views of what constitutes digital inclusion in particular I have often argued against those who would claim to have the answer. I thought it was time I put forward my thoughts as a digital inclusion manifesto.
1. Technology alone will not solve the problems of your community, let alone the country.
The potential benefit of digital technology for individuals, groups and communities is self evident. It offers a chance to access services and information; it provides a channel for self expression and access to knowledge. It provides a mechanism for collaboration and sharing. All of this has no value without the physical engagement of the individual in the community. There will always be a need for leaflets, posters, knocking on doors and meeting people in the street.
2. Apps are an important tool but they are not the answer to anything.
Transparency is paramount, open access to government data is one route to transparency. Tim O’Reilly’s Apps for America made me aware of the huge potential for Government data in the public realm to inform individuals and to inform service delivery. Ed Mayo and Tom Steinberg’s work on “The Power of Information” highlighted the intrinsic value that lay in government held data that was, until recently, locked away for no real reason other than it was held by the government. All of that is changing now and changing for the better.
Those who create Apps provide an important function by making that data accessible and mobile. When the enthusiasts point to Apps as the answer to the problem of informing people they forget all of the other elements that enable people to participate by being informed, they also forget that the world view that informs a particular App makes that App a mediated channel, not an intrinsically open one.
3. Skills are “key” to digital inclusion but they are not the starting point.
Whether we like it or not, People will start from where they are; the strategy should be to meet the needs of the individual and then backfill the rest. While a focus on skills is important we should not lose sight of community potential. John Field is not widely acknowledged as a champion of digital inclusion but his mantra says that: Learning communities have social capital, social capital makes innovation possible.
When we focus on skills alone we lose sight of the empowerment which digital inclusion enables. The focus on skills marginalises the digital potential highlighted by Eric Von Hippel for innovation. The holy trinity of service design is commissioners, providers and users. We should adopt a mindset which places inclusion at the core and intelligence at the edge. That link between the edge and the core is part of the potential for digital inclusion. Invention requires an individual spark, innovation requires a community mind.
4. Without infrastructure digital inclusion is a pointless exercise.
In the United Kingdom we do not have a market in telecommunications. We have a supplier of significant market power who supplies in a regulated environment. Both the market and regulation have failed. We also have a consumer base that is largely naive. There is still a wry smile for those who declare ignorance of the Internet and all things technical. The result of this is a society whose comfort zone is an industrial lifestyle with a digital veneer.
This has wide implications; the curse of city regions, the impact of rural deprivation but most importantly the loss to the wider community and the economy of the participation of all members of society. The stakeholder group is constrained by access to infrastructure and this is condoned by Government so that the myth of the market can be sustained.
5. There are those who see digital as a means to cut costs and as a source of information not as a route to inclusion and empowerment.
The biggest users of government services are the most vulnerable group in the community. Those who suffer multiple deprivations have their own networks that meet their needs; the network is the first layer of the care wrap. In a crisis nobody uses the internet but they do phone a friend: focus on the friends. Working towards universal digital inclusion it is often easy to forget that the third sector creates a pathway to get to hard to reach clients. Within those complex networks we should remember that brokers are the most important members of society; they see the parts and create the whole.
There is a digital inclusion imperative resulting from a high level determination to see people on line to access information and services. In meeting that imperative, let us not lose sight of the potential for the biggest stakeholders to be empowered.
6. We have to get serious about identity.
Being who we say we are has never been more important despite this we persist in placing a value on the anonymity provided by the Internet. While we hide a true identity and believe that the portability of popular applications will provide all that we need the truth is that a political view from an anonymous person counts for little and an anonymous person cannot access a service that they need.
We have to get serious about identity. The underpinning work on identity is there, we don’t have to invent it but we do have to embrace it so that it reflects our needs. The alternative is that, at some point, it will be imposed and we may sacrifice not just anonymity but also freedom.
7. Helping people to find a voice is worthless unless somebody is prepared to listen.
The power of social media to represent the voices in a community seem to have been an argument for digital inclusion since social media rose to prominence. I often read pieces which mourn the fact that nobody who makes decisions listens. At the same time I hear elected members saying, I’m using social media, follow me, and I’ll listen.
We have lost sight of what government is. Government is a statutory function with political oversight carried out in the name of the Queen. As UK citizens we are subjected to it, at all levels, it is carried out for the benefit of the country not the individual.
It doesn’t have to be that way but we need to stop raging against the storm and participating through the structures with a view to changing them. What digital inclusion brings is the potential for organising, collaborating and giving a platform for the emergent stories in a way that they can begin to influence the way we receive services and the potential for us to take control of those services and deliver them for ourselves. When people have a “voice” don’t be surprised if they shout loudly: harness the power.
8. Content has a value, distribution is cheap. We should pay for the content and not the channel.
The word “content” is overused and overhyped. We have arrived in an unfamiliar place where everything on line is “content”. The result of being in that place is that we believe content to be free. Everything on line isn’t content. Content should have a value proposition which encompasses creativity, academic excellence and authorship. A billion U Tube videos do not equate to content.
The unfamiliar place is a foggy place where it’s hard to see. The forces in support of content are not the content providers, they are the publishers with all of their accompanying marketing and access channels. They seek to protect not the content but their distribution rights. They thrive on the arguments about content and they seek to sustain a business model that has long been out of date.
Clinging to the old business models simply delays the inevitable: monopolies and protectionism result in entropy.
9. Digital Inclusion needs a champion.
By identifying a champion the government has found someone to represents digital inclusion to the rest of the world. Someone who will walk the halls of Westminster to coax and cajole members of parliament. A person who will profile the work of local government and make local politicians aware. Without a champion digital inclusion would not have the profile it does now.
Of course, being a champion is a thankless task, a classic case of pleasing some of the people all of the time and all of the people none of the time. Therefore, we who work in the digital inclusion space should expect to be missed out of the roll of honour some of the time, we should understand the duplication and the obsessive focus on national initiatives. We should be glad, however, the work that goes on at the local level is recognised for what it is.
10. You do not need to own the solution.
The inability of citizens to communicate with political and officer members of government bodies at all levels through a channel of choice a social media platform has to be one that sees voices raised in anguish most often. Local authorities put in place technical barriers, they put in place regulatory barriers and then they put in place their own solution.
Not many people use local authority social media solutions. They are viewed with suspicion. We now have The Council Blog, The Council Tweet, The Council Facebook page but we are not interested. We want free and open access to the people for whom we pay to deliver services and to regulate that delivery.
The confusion in the minds of voters, officers and members alike has created a place where services are delivered to us by them. We have lost sight of “for” and “with” and we are no longer clear about what is statutory and what is there because it is worthwhile. Things that are worthwhile do not need to be delivered to us, they should be delivered for us and with us. Digital Inclusion holds the potential to empower individuals and communities in such a way that they can deliver services with the local authority for themselves.
You cannot have a knowledge economy without a knowledge society. Being digital, if we are focussing on including people in a digital world, the world should reflect this. People are being positioned to receive services in a digital way, this is not the same as being digital where people also participate, create and give. The industrial society is struggling to make the transition to a knowledge society and yet the knowledge economy is presented as being so important but corporate structure are much more comfortable if people work and behave in an industrial way even though they are using digital tools. Digital inclusion is part of a social transition which is evolutionary which is being hampered by social, political and commercial interests who do not know how to adapt to a digital society.