Therefore it's unacceptable….


It’s a fair question, isn’t it? Government invests all that money in local government IT; then supports all of that community based activity: digital inclusion advisers, digital mentors, UK Online Centres, Race Online 2012; what does it get for its money?

This week David Cameron endorsed Martha Lane-Fox’s digital champion’s campaign:

“Since Martha launched her Manifesto For A Networked Nation in Downing Street last July, we’ve seen 1,100 partners of all sizes and sectors get on board.

But we need to go further. So today I am delighted to welcome the announcement of the 100,000 local digital champion volunteers – and make a massive plea to those of you who aren’t yet involved to sign up. “

Despite (or maybe because of) the furore earlier this week News International chose to give this story some column inches. The Sun says:

“Therefore it’s unacceptable that we have nine million people in the UK who have never been online.

Getting online saves you on average £300 a year.”
Read more:

It’s an interesting statistic that £300 and it’s largely based on the PWC report “The Economic Case for Digital Inclusion” published for Race Online 2012 in 2009. It highlights all of the things we take for granted: on line shopping, booking holidays, getting a job, accessing learning and that’s all quite true. People say that since they’ve been on line their lives have changed, and yes, it probably has.

The case for accessing government services on line is also well made. The PWC report calculated a saving of between £3.30 and £12.00 per contact and transaction and a total saving of £900 million per annum. I can tell you that, as a survivor of d-gov and e-gov, it’s not that easy. Savings come in lots of different flavours principle amongst them are cashable and non-cashable. A non-cashable saving means that you either do things better, or faster, or differently which means you free up front line staff to do important things like speak to people who have service needs. Cashable savings mean that you generate actual money by doing things on line which means getting rid of the people who man the front line and get service users to use on line services instead. So let’s be clear; savings come at a cost to someone.

The part that almost everybody misses out is the potential for empowerment. Because I can  use things that are on line I can be better informed, I can share my opinions, I can crowd source solutions, I can lobby, I can influence I can participate. While the jury may be out on the real potential of that empowerment in the English political system the very fact that every councillor and local government PR office is scrambling to start its Facebook page and Twitter stream suggests to me that there’s something in it.

Now, when the underlying theme is the “Big Society” and the Localism Bill uses the word “right”; right to bid & buy, right to challenge; when the public services white paper is called “Open Public Services” and it talks about the potential for the Third Sector and the decreasing role of Local Government in delivery; now is the time when the potential for empowerment of individuals and communities becomes paramount.

So, of course it’s right that we should question why 9 million people are excluded from the potential benefits that accrue when you are digitally included. Will Martha and her 100,000 volunteers succeed by this time next year? No they won’t, except by some fudging of the statistics or some twist of the copy writer’s art. There are two reasons why I say this: the first is that the underlying principle of inclusion is not how much money you can save or how much money you can earn however desirable that might be. The second is that the full benefits to all will never be realised when we do not live in a digital society; we live in a post industrial society whose attitudes have remained in the 19th century; which means, the benefits only accrue to the few.

The law of diminishing returns will prevail. Putting the same amount of resource into digital inclusion year on year will only see the digital divide get narrower and deeper. The deeper into exclusion you are the less likely you are to want to be included and the temptations of e-bay or the arrival of the Ocado van with your Waitrose shopping will not be enough. The biggest service users are the people who are the most excluded. Our role is not to “get them online” but to seek ways in which “digital” will empower them to make their own world a better one. To understand what is wrong with their world and to put it right on their terms not those of the “Big Society”. This is not about doing things “with” instead of doing things “for” or “to” this is about accepting that coproducing solutions to the lives of our most excluded will require a different way of thinking.

Our society only sees benefit in terms of people joining a set of values that maintain a status quo. There is no benefit for vested interests in a truly digital society, solving its own problems through solutions which do not conform to the 19th century memes that profit the few. Even the hardest to reach individual understands that. While we may think of the excluded Weltalschauung as  cynical from where they stand its life – just not as we know it. The potential for digital inclusion to generate true public value through open data, transparency and coproduction is a much bigger saving than we as individuals get from shopping on line or the government gets by delivering services on line.

We will need access, of course we will; pervasive, mobile, high speed, low cost access. The pathetic hair suited efforts of the government’s Broadband Development scheme and the undermining of innovation by narrowly focussed regulation by Ofcom only serve to maintain the 19th century industrialised society which benefits the very few while we have yet to see public value for everybody   materialise in a truly digital society.

So while I wish the very best to Martha and her 100,000 volunteers I would appeal to everybody to step back, think about it and think differently so that post 2012 we can see our way to a truly digital society.


7 thoughts on “Therefore it's unacceptable….

  1. Ha.
    best post I have read for a bit on the subject. Spot on. The problem as I see it is that you are right, we still think we are an industrial nation, when in fact we are not. We import most things now, even food ffs, and let our land be used for watervoles, field mice, butterflies and bugs. Very commendable trying to protect Gods creatures, but to pay for this we need an income. The easiest way we can market ourselves is online. This country can deliver content. But only if we get upload speeds, symmetrical internet access. No country on fibre will want to come here for content or services if we can only shove up a few meg at a time. We need fibre, moral and optic, and to hell with regulators and analysis teams and consultants. The vital vision programme of BT has brainwashed the health service, police and government, both local and national. We cannot continue to patch up a victorian phone network and expect this country to ‘get online’ when half the time it is throttled, capped or charged through the nose for an internet connection.
    The internet is free. The infrastructure to get to the internet costs money, but it would cost a lot less if it was modernised, both to maintain and deliver services. The ROI is for the whole country. Government would save money by becoming more efficient, and as you say, investing time into talking to people instead of stuffing envelopes. We got three identical ones from the hospital this week, and our cattle passports always come in individual envelopes instead of batches. We can get a pile of 30 some days. Ridiculous. It can all be done online. But many farmers can’t get online. The ones who I speak to have tried, but time outs mean they get frustrated and go back to analogue. Since I got online I have saved thousands of pounds. One day I will find time to make a list.

    I do research projects for a local university. I speak to many people who aren’t online to find out why. Their reasons vary, but the general feeling is that because connections are so poor (mainly cos people sign up to cheap ISPs) (and distance from exchanges) those who have tried it aren’t impressed. The other reason is because it is so difficult. They feel they will be laughed at or thought of as stupid. Why is it so difficult? Mainly because windows is so bug ridden, computers are awful until you get the knack off and stop being scared of them. (bit like driving really) Because lessons provided are not geared to the needs of the users. Because top down ‘digitalinclusion’ measures are ineffective against the obstacles real people face.
    The solution is to get fibre networks out to rural areas, where people really want to get connected, and forget about the refuseniks for now. Once there are people with real internet connectivity that just works then others will want some too. That is why I am asking for opinions on savings. I reckon the network we are talking about can deliver the equivalent of a phone line, mobile services, data transfer, web, online videos and live/replay tv, etc etc, and a gigabit service could cost £30 a month. I reckon that would be a no brainer for most families and businesses, and could save them a fortune. If this is the trigger to get them connecting, the other uses will follow. If someone takes a service just to save phone and sky bills, not even wanting to put a computer on it, surely when someone shows them how easy it is to connect via home wifi to a visiting smartphone or ipad they will get bitten?
    That is a far better solution than making them feel bad, or dragging them into soddin lessons to teach them something they don’t need? Or giving a family a free laptop because they are poor, when if you look on the roof there is a sky dish and xboxes in the bedrooms, and each family member has a mobile…
    Far better to give that family a fibre. One of those kids playing games could make his family a fortune. The next zuccenberg (or whatever his name is) in some poor family or upland farm could be bored to tears trying to upload an app on 0.34megabit adsl ‘broadband’ or even worse dial up, give the kids fibre and they will design stuff to use it.
    Anyway, I was only gonna put that it was a good post and then got started on a rant. Will stop now…

  2. The vast majority of the 9 million who are not on line is not due to connectivity. But the UK must sort out those who have none or limited broadband.

    Throttling and capping is due to people wanting to pay as little as possible.

    What does ‘No country on fibre will want to…’ mean?

  3. 4 million of the 9 cannot even read and write- under 5 years old. Many of the remainder are digitally reluctant. We are being beholden now or lies, lies and damned statistics, manipulated simply to tick boxes. The facts will come when we realise a step change is needed and plan and provide for it. Then we will look back and find that innovation, adoption, usage etc followed once the infrastructure was in place.

    JFDI FTTH and let’s see where d, e, f and g government were taken by 60+ million connected users, just as twitter and the telephone have become far more than their developers could ever have imagined.

  4. Well said Lins, it reminds me of what Churchill said:
    “I love statistics, I can make them say anything I like”.
    what gets me so ranty on this subject is on the one hand BT and OFcom say 99% of the uk has a broadband connection, and yet the same BT is holding its hand out for public money to provide one, and still it admits it can’t connect 10% even with funding.
    They manipulate us, the councils, the government and our economy, throttling us to protect their obsolete business model.
    I agree, bring on the JFDI FTTH.

  5. Let’s not forget that many of those who are not online aren’t just uneducated in IT but may also be on very low incomes, some even lack a computer. There is of course a government support scheme for that too but we have no detail on how many people it’s actually helping.

    Rolling out ultra fast FTTH broadband to everybody is definitively the sort of action we need, but ideally it needs to be done through open platforms that ISPs can compete on and thus keep prices affordable for related groups. Easier said than done.

    Another problem, which is easy to forget, is that many of those who don’t have the internet actually do not want it. Getting 80+ year old granny’s and granddads online is a tough task, albeit not impossible.

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