Tuesday 21st February 2012, London. We wearily made our way past the groups of school girls huddled outside the O2 ready for the Brit Awards. We left the queue to the cold wind and entered Ravensbourne, http://www.rave.ac.uk/ winner of the RIBA award for London 2011, for “See IT in Action”. This was billed as a market place for Local Government and many of the same old faces were stood, seated or prostrate in front of a sea of pull up banners like the vestigial remains of a defeated medieval Japanese army. They outnumbered the delegates who were encamped around a small temporary stage sipping hot drinks served from vacuum flasks into white cups. Having said “Hello” to the familiar faces I joined the camp followers, perused the information supplied and sipped the coffee. Francis Maude MP had been promised but a late withdrawal meant that the day fell to Helen Milner from UKOnline who gave us the news we were probably expecting – that UKOnline were on the cusp of converting their 1 millionth digital acolyte; then the news that some probably weren’t expecting, that public services will be digital by default and the fall back position for the digitally excluded will be assisted digital. There should have been a lot more detail and a lot more discussion at this point but no, we had the percentages, the older person case study and then it was time for workshops.
While Revensbourne may well be an RIBA award winner it’s design does not equip it as a conference venue. From this point until the end of the day we were engaged in a turf war with the students; given that this was their space we were the invaders it’s easy to see why they weren’t in the least bothered and hard to see why we were there at all. For all of that the content of the workshops wasn’t bad and the messages were good it’s just that the channel was poor; bad sound and appalling visuals. I managed to take away three key points: Working through communities that are close to disengaged groups is an effective way to tackle issues; channel switching can be encouraged by using technology that is relevant to people’s needs and recognises their preferences; the government knowledge hub is live and has a strong social interface because this is an effective way of both sharing knowledge and of bringing relevant knowledge to you.
At the end of the day there was a draw for a bottle of whisky and a bottle of sparkling wine; I didn’t win either. I was photographed holding a promotional mug in front of the Learning Pool stand by the most excellent Paul Webster (@watfordgap) and then it was time to leave. The queue outside the O2 was both longer and deeper and the crowds were starting to roll in. I slipped away on the Jubilee Line and headed for home.
From out of this conference dystopia some salient things emerge. While many will look at the key points from the workshops and say “we could have told you that” it must be remembered that even twelve months ago it was unlikely that such messages would have been heard at a government conference: the messages were always centralized, top down, “done to” and “Social” was something new and to be controlled from the core. This reflects a real change in approach brought about by economic and political necessity as much as anything. For me the biggest disappointment was that here was an opportunity to take “Digital by Default” by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shake while framing searching questions about the details of “Assisted Digital”. Alas is was not to be and given the potential impact of these things for those who are excluded by lack of access, lack of engagement or disability this was an opportunity lost.
Friday 24th February, 2012, Liverpool. There was an almost school boy anticipation as I walked through the doors of 151 Dale Street, just round the corner from John Moors University, for “socialXchange: social in the age of digital” . The atrium stairwell of this George V building is a reminder of the civic pride of a city and a magnificent history. Down to the basement, a white label stuck on with my name and Twitter handle and, yes, more coffee from vacuum flasks served in white cups. The main conference room was buzzing, screens round the room showed the Twitter stream and we had easy access to the wifi network. Smarts phones, iPads and the odd laptop clicked away and we started to introduce ourselves to people we had never met before or who we had only met through one of the social media channels.
A chaotic call to order and we were off; a quick round robin for expectations of the day then four short presentations by practitioners working in the voluntary sector and local government. Great visuals and sound, good use of Prezi and one, consistent message: you can do things differently and make a difference. With presentations out of the way and a clear focus the screen was lifted and the blank white board, ruled into time slots was revealed – an unconference – YES! What did we want to talk about? Who had something to say?
A quick break whilst the rooms were re-organised and we were off. There were so many messages to come out of these informally organized workshops: the Third Sector has within in a wealth of talent and experience; discussion ranged from the role of social media in a matrixed managed organisation via how to introduce social media into organisations to finish at the potential for open data as a resource and as an organisational philosophy. The sector, which is expected to take over the delivery of services as local authorities move to commissioning rather than delivery, is not ready for Digital by Default; ergo it is not ready for Assisted Digital. While the Government may point to the success of its digital champions and its one million UKOnline successes it has yet to address the principle client group of many Third Sector organisations, the final 20% who are the biggest users of services. The Third Sector is not ready of the impact of personalisation nor is it prepared for co-production. The difference is that as a sector it is willing to say so, it is willing to tackle the issues and it is determined to meet the needs of its client groups.
Conference organisation apart – and the people in London would do well to learn from the people in Liverpool – the digital inclusion agenda has not gone away it has simply moved into new territory. The messages from the London conference are good ones in many ways but the messages coming from the Liverpool conference are the ones to which people should be listening. If the readers of this blog haven’t yet done so I strongly suggest they visit http://www.so-mo.co/ and connect to this network and don’t just watch but “act” in this space.