Sometimes the mark of a good meeting or debate is that you emerge with more uncertainty than when you arrived. SCIP Digital Inclusion event hosted by NixonMcInnes and WiredSussex last evening on the Labour Conference fringe certainly left me with more questions than answers.
There was a clear view of what digital exclusion is from the speakers. And it’s a huge issue: massive numbers of people are not getting the benefits of computers and web access. I was particularly troubled by the evidence of how school children without computers and web access at home are seriously disadvantaged. So much learning and so many educational resources are available online now that they are losing out to an enormous degree. Lots of digitally excluded families are single parent families too. But, equally, digital exclusion can also mean geographical exclusion because there are no pipes and be related to disability and age.
Tom Watson MP was very clear regarding political structures (and also rather good fun as usual): government needs to be more joined up and he’s rightly enthusiastic about the work of Martha Lane-Fox as the new digital champion. He was candid on the level of understanding of new media, web issues and digital exclusion in government: “It’s pretty bad.”
But I wonder whether we came any closer to understanding why it matters or why we should care more. Is digital inclusion a human right as the French recently have decreed or is it just a Good Thing, or is the economic importance dominant? Digital inclusion also brings better educational and employment opportunities. Graham Walker, Director of Strategy for the Office of the Digital Champion asked the question: why should we care about digital exclusion? And perhaps because all of us there knew it was important, we didn’t more adequately answer that question. But it seems we need to.
My other big question regards what exactly has been achieved when not insignificant sums have been spent and, perhaps more keenly, are the right people doling out the cash? It seems to me that broadband access has surged from nil in 1997 to 65% today had little to do with government. Moreover, I didn’t get a really tangible sense of what could be achieved quickly and efficiently.
I guess the nature of the event was always going to favour a top down philosophy and examining what can be done by government. The essential approach of the panel was: let’s define the issue, let’s get the issue on the agenda of government more fully and let’s get loads of money to tackle it. And UK Online Centres has been evidently successful and the Home Access plan is welcome: it’s a great scheme to give families with school age kids computers and internet access at home.
But as the £300m Home Access budget was mentioned I couldn’t help feel some disquiet at Mark Walker of SCIP’s cheerful admission that one of his projects had spent £180k in a year and achieved very little.
I very strongly believe that business has a critical role to play here. For me chirpy Graham Walker’s sceptical bargepole view that keeps business distant is simplistic not least because it views business predominantly as a budget holders to be tapped. Needless to say, he is fearful that business would get involved merely as a PR stunt and that’s fair enough. But business involvement can be not only but also. In particular, there are people in business, people like Martha lane-Fox, who could be useful. Expertise, not just cash.
We need to be clearer on why we should be passionate about tackling digital exclusion and more honest about how it’s damaging society and the economy. Of course, on so many levels, we’ve only just begun but it seems to me that government doesn’t understand the issue and yet we’re looking to them to solve it. Great swathes of expertise and success, from business in particular, remains untapped.
And here are some of the other questions that sprang to mind:
– Should we compel very profitable, usually international companies such as eBay/PayPal/Skype, Google, Yahoo and the rest to shoulder some of the burden of tackling the problem? The money they make goes straight to California and Leichtenstein and the like. Should they be ponying more up?
– The pipes issue can be solved: just needs cash. Right?
– The BBC surely has a non-self serving role in doing more here? They get such a chunk of cash, after all, and compete with private business online. Do they need a specific role here that stretches beyond catering to people who are already online? One thing that occurred to me was: should the digitally excluded be exempted from the Licence Fee or perhaps get a voucher to the value of the Licence Fee to spend on getting included? (And yes, I know, a half-baked and tricky idea but it sprang to mind!)
– Should we accept that there will always be some people who aren’t online, like we seemingly tolerate the fact that some people are can’t read and write proficiently?
– Might clever, lean and ethical local businesses and organisations be better than govt, third sector and agencies at spending the money that becomes available?
– Where do schools fit in with this problem? And libraries?
– What is going to happen if the Conservatives win the next general election?