This panel, chaired by Computer Weekly’s Tony Collins, started with a call from the stage to stop twittering; sit there, and cover our eyes and mouth. That’s the experience of digital exclusion.
According to Martha Lane Fox’s research, 10 million people (a sixth of the UK!) have never used a computer; 17 million people (nearly a third) neither own one or have access to one. Stephen Hilton of Bristol City Council pointed this out right at the start of this panel; in a room full of twitterers and bloggers and digital natives.
Anthony points out that the Government’s heart is in the right place. However, it’s often seen in a rather narrow mindset, couched entirely in terms of economic rationales. He argues that digital inclusion should be done because, like all social inclusion, it’s simply the right thing to do. He warns us to avoid paternalism, too: different people will want to do different things online. Not everyone is a Guardian-reading middle-class liberal!
The panel are pretty unanimous about digital inclusion being only a part of a social inclusion strategy. As Jan Gower says, you need to be very clear on what the needs of all the parts of society are – we tend to look at the process first, rather than the individual, and looking at the needs of individuals first would lead to more humane, better-designed services.
One of the risks here is, as mentioned earlier, avoiding being over-prescriptive or even paternalistic. An example raised by Anthony: Sure Start started as a very local service, which was a strength – local communities knew best what their local needs were. As it was expanded, it lost its local distinctiveness and moved towards cookie-cutter approaches, to its detriment in both effectiveness and in losing the radical thinking originally involved. John suggested that local government’s role is to enable, not to dictate: this is how councils handle adult social care.
There are technological barriers too. Dave Coplin from Microsoft talks about bandwidth: shouldn’t we do more to get fast Internet connections into peoples’ houses? Jan Gower acknowledges that it’s the elephant in the room, but the problem is that any measure to pay for it is going to look like a tax. The politics is the hard problem.
Finally, what would we like to see from the next government? Anthony wants to see an understanding that devolving power means devolving it to individual citizens. Stephen wants the Government to drive the message that digital inclusion isn’t an IT issue; it’s a better council services issue, and needs to go forward at council chief executive level. John also wants to see strong leadership, but also wider participation and more investment. He believes it’s a massive opportunity, but it has to be seized now. Jan agrees: “if it’s a priority, make it a priority.”