Under the Labour government digital inclusion became something of a hot topic, and was moving towards the mainstream of policy. Digital inclusion – increasing access to and literacy of IT, broadband and digital media platforms – cut broadly across several areas of policy and brought together ministers from several departments including Communities & Local Government, Business, Innovation & Skills, and Department for Education. In their final year in office the agenda was brought into the mainstream through the appointment of Martha Lane Fox as a “digital inclusion champion” tasked with, amongst other things, raising awareness of digital inclusion amongst the general public.
A change of government brings changes in policy direction, so what now for digital inclusion under the Lib-Con coalition government? Will digital inclusion projects survive their cut backs? To answer that question, it’s helpful to consider some of the positions that inform digital inclusion policy arguments, and map these, broadly, onto right and centre right positions.
Digital Inclusion makes it cheaper to deliver public services
To me this has always been the key reason why digital inclusion has figured within government policy. The theory goes something like this: if citizens are able to communicate with government, at all levels, through digital channels we can reduce the transaction costs for communication between citizens and government. This idea has been around for a long time, indeed the cost benefit of in home, digital, medical consultation via fibre optic networks was one of the proposed benefits of cable TV laid out during the formulation of the 1980 broadcasting act.
Many of the first acts of the Lib-Con government are involved in public sector cut backs. Digital inclusion seems to offer cheaper, smaller government and an aspect of self reliance that is very much in line with the thinking of the right. This alone suggests that digital inclusion should continue to feature prominently in the new administration’s thinking.
Social capital and civic society
Further nuanced arguments about citizenship and engagement suggest that digital inclusion could help create a fairer more equitable society through raising participation in governance. Essentially this is still articulated through the language of cost savings: a society where people are engaged is cheaper to run. Look a little deeper here and we can also see that digital inclusion speaks to other widely held ideas. Robert Putnam seems to have quite a sway over social policy, with his idea that renewal of communities leads to better life chances, measured through social capital (if you really want to read more on this, I’ll gladly let you proof read the draft section of my PhD’s literature review on the topic). One direction in which digital inclusion can spin is the idea that communities can communicate more easily once they are online – through social networks, blogs, hyperlocal news outlets etc. It is suggested that these enabling structures facilitate the generation of stronger community: membership and engagement with these online communities are themselves, looked at through Putnam’s framework, indicators of increased social capital, and indicative of an upswing in community values which leads to better outcomes for all. You will find strong echoes of these Putnamesque ideas in recent Conservative ideas such as the “Big Society” (indeed, much policy about social cohesion draws on the idea of social capital as developed by Putnam). Putnam’s work can be very much located within a right wing tradition of sociology, and sits comfortably alongside work of other thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama, a renowned neo-conservative american policy advisor. The social capital arguments for digital inclusion must seem compelling to the Lib-Con movement.
Cost savings for individuals
Helen Milner of UK Online centres is a strong advocate for the position that online households save money (she’s also a strong advocate that digital inclusion increases other opportunities for people). This is perhaps slightly harder for a government to get behind except on the basis of fairness: is it fair that I know how to make major savings on my utility bills and my Mum doesn’t? Of course it’s not. What is less clear to me is what the Lib-Con government would do about this issue (I’d love to know, do leave a comment if you have thoughts).
Conclusion: Digital Inclusion in the Big Society
Given this brief overview, I would suggest that digital inclusion policies and approaches should thrive under the current administration as I believe digital inclusion sits comfortably within the ideologies and approaches to government of the right. Digital inclusion sits comfortably within the Big Society concept, and claims to offer smaller, cheaper, government without a reduction in services. What I think is less certain is how much money the government will put behind digital inclusion, and what opportunities there will be for those who work in this area to be funded for their work. Schemes such as the Digital Mentors programme initiated by Labour were aimed at supporting grass roots activity – the Big Society agenda seems to me positioned at encouraging these sorts of activities to continue not as funded projects, but as volunteerism. The challenge for those of you seeking to make a living within the area of digital inclusion will not be finding work – you will be pushing on an open door – but seeing that work valued and paid for.