Reflections on what might have been
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: http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/features/3575656/Martha-Lane-Fox-aims-to-get-last-9million-people-in-UK-online.html#ixzz1Swo2FW1n
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.