A Thursday's child

I’ve never been entirely clear whether having ‘far to go’ was positive – indicating fabulous potential, or negative, inferring a long and arduous path with many insurmountable obstacles. That double meaning is very relevant to Digital Britain as it begins to take its first toddling steps, because frankly it could grow up either way. I believe which way is very much up to us.
So far, certainly, Digital Britain’s path hasn’t been smooth. It was a difficult birth, met with mixed feelings rather than open arms. For the general public and the media this boiled down to the £6 landline levy and licence fee skimming, while for industry stakeholders and the wider Digirati it’s been more a case of 2MB or not 2MB.
For me, it is not the sum of British landlines x 50p a month that doesn’t add up, nor the negative correlation between international speeds and the suggested UK minimum of 2MB. I’m more confused by plans to spend £200m a year on that 2MB for the 1.5 million households who don’t have good internet access, versus a mere £12m – over three years – on the 15 million people who don’t have the motivation, skills or opportunity to use technology at all.

Neglecting participation
As the experts have picked over Digital Britain to weigh it up and count fingers and toes, ‘digital participation’ has in fact been an area of strange neglect. Billed by Ben Bradshaw in the Commons as one of the report’s main themes, it has lacked both the initial resource and the subsequent attention paid to the infrastructures and content. Without investment in this key area, I’m afraid we could be stunting Digital Britain’s growth.
Being generous, only around three million people are affected by poor internet access and speeds at home. Taking them away from the 15 million ‘excluded’, that leaves a good 12 million with good broadband pumping down their streets who are nevertheless left out in the non-digital cold. Our research shows that 55 per cent of those left offline want to use it but have specific barriers – money, time, knowledge, understanding, while the remaining 45 per cent reject it out of hand as something that’s not necessary and not for them.
Connecting the 55 per cent and engaging the 45 per cent is key to this agenda. Having one in four people excluded from the digital world will hold us back, engaging them will propel us forwards. People not pipes are the real heart of Britain, and it’s their use of technology that will drive the country out of recession and into global competition.

Problems ahead

Yet Digital Britain may have more complex problems ahead of it than its digital participation deficit. The very concept of ‘digital’ as a key factor in economic recovery is articulated by Lord Mandelson in the first line of the report’s foreword, yet it is by no means universally accepted. More of our research has found that there are some key decision-makers and stakeholders who aren’t on board with even the basic premise of Digital Britian, let alone its nuances. Less than half of MPs (46 per cent) and only one in three councillors (38 per cent) think digital investment will help the UK recover from the downturn. Similarly, at least a quarter of business leaders (27 per cent) actively disagree it has any role at all to play in recovery.
Perhaps more worryingly, while most MPs, councillors and business people had a fairly accurate understanding that disadvantaged groups were more likely to be excluded, the link between social exclusion and digital exclusion was also a matter of dispute. Only 60 per cent of MPs, 55 per cent of councillors and 55 per cent of business leaders believed the internet could help to level the playing field and bridge class divides. What’s more, there were significant differences between political parties. Labour representatives were most likely to see digital matters as key to economic recovery and recognise its social impact; conservatives were most likely to disagree it had either an economic or social function.

Digital exclusion
From my point of view, the evidence is clear. Those already at a disadvantage are up to seven times more likely to be digitally excluded. At UK online centres we’ve found internet users’ confidence in their ability to find work outstrips non-users by 25 per cent, and that they’re more likely to rate their general confidence and quality of life higher. They also find it easier to plan travel and organise social gatherings, and feel much better informed about current affairs. Having the access, motivation and skills to take advantage of technology can improve lives, job prospects and work performance, access to information and more general social capital.
Evidently, Digital Britain really does have far to go – twice. Not only does it have to rebalance its people, pipes and poetry priorities, it also has to secure buy-in of the cross party, cross government and cross sector partners it will need to survive the next few months and secure its future. Without doubt, this Thursday’s child is not in for an easy time once it steps out of its 250 pages and into real life. I, however, am a Tuesday’s child, and as a result full of at least proverbial grace. Therefore I am prepared to give Digital Britain not only the benefit of the doubt, but to focus on its bright sides, and on what might be achieved if it is allowed to go as far as it could and should.

Encouraging points
Glimmers of real hope and potential can be seen throughout the report. The very fact it even mentions digital participation is progress of sorts, because it marks the debut of digital inclusion – a peripheral policy area I’ve battled in for many years – on a mainstream political stage. Digital inclusion may have carelessly lost its Minister in the reshuffle, but it has gained a dynamic and interested Champion in Martha Lane Fox. As a member of the taskforce appointed to support her, I’m very much looking forward to having a figurehead for the issue who is determined to see it built-up, supported and actioned, and who can inspire industrial and political leaders right alongside the general public.
Eclipsed by its bigger and shinier sibling, another hidden highlight was Estelle Morris’ report on digital life skills. It launched on the same day as big brother DB, and its recommendations support the need to make digital participation/inclusion central to implementation as well as rhetoric. The idea of a co-ordinated social marketing campaign echoes the work UK online centres do on a smaller scale with national Get online day and other campaigns to target, inform and encourage those digitally excluded to make technology part of their lives. We’ve found the key to successful recruitment and retention is in making use of local intermediaries to steer their own mini-campaign under an umbrella theme, drive local footfall and offer local support. It’s a lesson I hope we can share, and a recommendation I hope Digital Britain can absorb while it is still young enough to do so.
It is a sad thing, however, for any child – Thursday’s or otherwise – to lose a parent, and Digital Britain will undoubtedly feel the loss of Stephen Carter so early in its life. In his absence it will need careful nurturing to grow up healthy and fit to meet new challenges, and I’m looking to Lord Mandelson, to Martha Lane Fox, and to Ofcom’s Ed Richards to see it lives up to its considerable potential. If they are to do so, they will need the support and guidance of all of DB’s interested and even its cynical extended family. Together, I believe we can clear its path and shape its future, and make ‘digital’ Britain truly Great.

For more information
Web: www.ukonlinecentres.com

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