The route to a digital future

Local authorities face the difficult task of continuing their excellent work laying the foundations for digital government with limited resources in a change averse environment. Others, notably, the DC10plus local authority members, Beacon Authorities and recipients of previous CLG e-innovation or National Project funding, are in a leadership position. This represents an opportunity to speed the delivery of digital government through cross-collaboration and sharing of good practice between local authorities. This will allow the rapid and efficient scaling up of products and services that have been proven to help better people’s social, economic and environment lives, while meeting LAA targets.
Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report presented a possible route to digital government. The report recognised that great strides have been taken towards making vital information and services available digitally. Carter also acknowledged that ensuring these initiatives benefit the lives of the widest possible range of people will mean striking a balance between innovation and inclusivity.
Changing times are also compelling local government to become more responsive in terms of how it delivers digital government. It must be innovative and creative to meet the needs of young and technologically savvy citizens, keeping pace with ever-evolving communications tools. Here many lessons can be learned from innovation within the private and not-for-profit sectors. An initiative such as Tweetyhall, which connects voters to their local government representatives, makes ingenious use of the social networking platform, Twitter. Here it is important to use the most appropriate channel for your audience eg, young people may prefer Facebook to Twitter. In the case of vulnerable young people without either, however, you may need a something even more innovative, such as the partnership e-mentoring pilot project in North Lincolnshire for children in care.  
The drive for innovation should never be to the exclusion of the socially disadvantaged or older people, the UK’s fastest growing demographic group. These are often the stakeholders with the greatest need of public services, but who lack the skills or resources to access them online. Moreover, a larger elderly population will require innovative assistive technology such as telehealth to help them lead independent lives. Indeed the recent government green paper, Building A Society For All Ages, recommended digital inclusion projects to help different generations stay in touch.

Access for all
Good government is digital government. To effect this we must widen access to technology through community-based education, making imaginative and creative use of new platforms and devices. These will provide the ‘safety net’ that ensures no one is left behind, but also help create the conditions by which we can upskill the British workforce. Innovation applies not only to new tools but also to the way we make technology relevant to more people’s lives.
Digital Britain has brought inclusion together with innovation by creating the National Plan for Digital Participation. Led by the new Champion for Digital Inclusion, Martha Lane-Fox, the plan will build on lessons learned during the Digital TV Switchover programme. It will widen e-participation through tailored local training and education programmes delivered by organisations with existing community links, such as UK Online Centre’s and Community Voices. This strategy, which uses pre-existing infrastructure and expertise, echoes the way in which the DC10plus works with regional agencies to heighten awareness of the benefits of technology and kickstart grassroots initiatives. It is precisely these kind of initiatives that we need if the government is to meet its own target of developing a Digital Switchover of Public Services Programme to begin in 2012.
This is an area where a wealth of successfully rolled-out local initiatives point the way to a more inclusive future. For example, an initiative in Milton Keynes entitles residents on benefits or low incomes to long-term loans of PC equipment and software for just £1.50 a week. This initative provides a practical strategy for reducing the cost of entry for technology. Alternatively, Digital Interactive TV Projects such as STREAM in Hull, and ‘Looking Local’, the national project run by Kirklees, provide homes, schools and businesses with a way to access exciting services through the technology that suits them best. Such projects allow people to access programming via set top boxes, PCs or other compatible equipment – even a Wii. If more local authorities were to take advantage of this type of innovation it may ensure that households without a PC are still digitally included. When a critical mass of digital public service delivery is reached, around 2012-13, there could then be more targeted schemes to assist remaining elderly and disadvantaged households to get online.

The digital divide
It is no accident that the Public Service Switchover coincides with another of Digital Britain’s key promises, the delivery of the Universal Service Obligation (USO) for broadband. Widening access to broadband is fundamental to ensuring that UK citizens can access Digital Government services. Yet the ‘digital divide’ that the USO will seek to close is much more complex than the rural vs urban terms in which it is mostly framed.
Most cities have large populations of socially excluded people, who can also be just as digitally excluded as those living in remote villages. Currently 49 per cent of people in social grade DE lack internet access (Source ICM, 2008) and only 15 per cent of people living in deprived areas have used a government online service or website in the past year (Source Ofcom, 2009). So while we must address the infrastructure problems preventing some rural populations from accessing the benefits of technology, we must also address the social and financial problems that limit digital participation in deprived urban areas.
Many socially excluded people do not have the financial stability to access broadband: either because they do not have credit cards or bank accounts, or because it’s simply unaffordable. Also, the rise of cheap pay-as-you-go mobiles means that many households no longer have active copper or lines in their homes. In some areas of Manchester more than 60 per cent of households no longer have fixed telephone lines and therefore cannot physically access broadband.
It is crucial that policy makers at all levels, especially in Europe, recognise this and acknowledge that market failure in seemingly ‘fully served’ areas is a reality. Alongside this we must also address the rural broadband challenge. Through the work of the Community Broadband Network, community co-operatives, active local individuals and others, much has been accomplished. Broadband penetration in some rural areas is now higher than in their urban equivalents, yet there are still significant access gaps that inhibit the rural economy and digital inclusion.

Infrastructure improvements
Resolving this requires investment in infrastructure, and the Digital Britain report has created the possibility for this through the 50p levy on fixed phone lines. To ensure that Britain keeps pace with the rest of the EU, however, we must consider how UK telcos’ laudable Fibre To The Cabinet programmes can be extended to Fibre To The Home (FTTH). Under current plans the UK is not likely to achieve one per cent FTTH penetration before 2012, compared to 13 EU countries which had achieved this level of penetration by 2008.
Secondly, to ensure that this investment effects social and technological inclusion, we must broaden the range of service provision. If the current range of broadband products and services leave people behind, robust, competitively priced alternatives must be created that are accessible to all. The WiMAX broadband services that Connect MK Ltd, in partnership with wireless broadband provider Freedom4, provide to schools in Milton Keynes offer a possible model. This partnership, which provides free broadband to school children, fosters improvements in educational attainment while enabling whole families to get online for the first time.
Projects to widen access to broadband can also be delivered alongside back-to-work initiatives. For example, Nottingham’s Homeshoring project brings work to people’s doorsteps through a broadband and internet telephony service installed in the home. This service gives users the chance to work from home by handling calls on behalf of a call-centre.

Learning from abroad
Digital inclusivity must also be improved at a regional level, and may require a clearer scope for public intervention. The City of Amsterdam’s ‘City-Net’ project, which is one of the case study areas for the DC10plus network Next Generation Access Workstream, is a key test case. In November 2007, Manchester City Council invited colleagues from the City of Amsterdam to present their plans to the city’s political leadership and senior management.
This presentation and following discussions continue to inform Manchester’s Digital Strategy. Both cities found a shared way of thinking about the main motivating influences on their current strategy. Manchester and Amsterdam acknowledged that next generation broadband is now the ‘real estate’ of the digital economy and will play a key part in maintaining both cities’ competitive edge on a regional and global basis. Furthermore, Amsterdam’s recognition that universal broadband access brings social and environmental benefits, such as breaking down social exclusion or enabling the deployment of smart meters, widens the debate beyond pure economic terms.
Digital Britain’s recommendations on digital government open up the exciting possibility of on-demand public services. Yet to be truly democratic, these must cater for online novice as much as the technologically articulate. Innovation needs to be matched with inclusivity, notably through education, exploitation of appropriate channels and platforms and, where appropriate, market intervention. Meeting Digital Britain’s aims will be challenging, but it will be immensely rewarding for individuals and the wellbeing of our economy and society.

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