I was on holiday last week so I’m a bit late in the day with the blogging about this year’s National Digital Inclusion Conference. Even so, I thought I’d still record my thoughts, starting by saying that I found the conference eye-opening, not least in the benefit that England (and Wales) seems to be gaining from the UK government’s focus and resources. Maybe I’m missing something here in Scotland, but England seems to be powering ahead or the rest of the UK, never mind the rest of Europe, outside Scandinavia. One example: the Digital Inclusion Advisers offered to local government in England by CLG . Not sure what’s happening in Scotland… who is driving the digital agenda? What are they achieving?
Six big ideas
As for the conference outcome, the four streams were asked to come up with 5 big ideas each. The overlap was so great that I could only see 6 or so distinct areas between them. A lesson for next year perhaps? Anyway, the themes I picked out were:
- Use existing neighbourhood groups as the basis for engagement – there is no need to be creating new networks (more on this below below)
- Sharing of data and resources: Government actions is needed to open up copyright law (eg to allow multi-format use of the same material: example given of Amazon Kindle having text-speech functionality removed, allowing access to content by visually impaired users), and free up its data for sharing using something like Creative Commons, avoiding the ridiculous situation where government departments are currently unable to use Ordnance Survey maps and geo-data.
- Use social marketing and existing government departments and resource to build in messages about inclusion, eg in ion soap opera plots (could there be a role for the BBC here?)
- Digital skills could be seen as an entitlement that should be supported by the state - starting by including broadband costs in the calculation of income support figure, in the same way as telephones were in the past
- Design for multi-channelling: not just websites, but also mobile phones up to using new(ish) technologies like IPTV. Start using simple appropriate technology – not the latest trends. That’s Twitter out then, thank God.
- Making better use of the outcomes of existing projects. In slogan form: stop duplicating and start replicating!
Almost all of these have direct applicaiton in e-participation. The key lesson I came away with was the importance of the use of social housing providers and existing trusted intermediaries (such as community groups etc) as the framework that can be used for building true, broad, digital inclusion. Real benefits that can be gained by training and supporting what’s already there, rather than (a) expecting alienated, un-confident individuals to interact with the state directly or (b) setting up yet more teams and organisations with a specific digital inclusion agenda.
The three that got away
I liked the conferences non-elitist take on social inclusion and democracy as a community activity. On the downside, even in the e-engagement stream there was a lack of emphasis of participation with the formal democratic and representative political processes – eg by creating channels with councillors and MPs, not just those responsible for service delivery. Some of the suggestions had interesting parallels with the neighbourhood block-level organisations that have worked so effectively elsewhere, but it’d be nice to want to do things that go beyond what the Chinese (or Cuban) Communist party would be comfortable with!
There are two other areas I’d have liked to see more on . Firstly, an explicit recognition of the importance of building long-term evaluation into all new projects – which requires designing for data-gathering from the beginning. Helen Milner of UK Online Centres argued strongly that the knowledge of how to do it is now available (we are not working in a vacuum any more), but this level of best practice in data gathering is patchy at best.
Secondly, identity management: there is talk about sharing data between delivery services, joining up government etc while balancing intrusiveness against service delivery, but no mention of how ordinary people were meant to manage the potential benefits.
Ironically Iain Dale was blogging about an example of this in my specialist field of e-participation while the conference was underway: the fake names on a No10 petition. All good fun I’m sure, but what if the government was legally required to respond to petitions once a certain number of signatures had been received? Who will be responsible for identifying the valid signatures? How will they do it? How am I meant to spot if someone has signed a petition in my name? (Hat-tip to Gez at Delib, who raises similar concerns).
If you want to find out more…
Fraser Henderson has noted his learning points on his blog here Videos of plenary sessions can be found here – Look out for Siôn Simon going off message about Directgov’s role as a central contact point.