BCS recently held a Thought Leadership debate to look at the question: ‘Do you think that you will be able to be a UK citizen in 10 years time without access to digital broadband services?

To start the event there were three speakers: Trevor Philips OBE, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Helen Milner, CEO, UK Online Centres and Richard D North from the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Trevor Philips commented that it was important for the IT profession to anticipate peoples’ needs. He said that IT isn’t about geeks and that IT must have the capacity to change and adjust to the needs of users.

He said that IT is moving at a fantastic rate. Not only does it need to adapt to the needs of people, but it is also transformative, changing the nature of fundamental concepts such as society with its global dimension and citizenship.

Citizenship is a vital public concept that needs to be set out properly. There are three parts to it:

  • capability - the ability to do;
  • autonomy - deciding for yourself;
  • participation - having a voice.

He felt that IT is fundamental to society and economic prosperity, but that it must be fair. For example, 90 per cent of new jobs require internet skills; 90 per cent of 16-24 year olds use the internet, but only 22 per cent of the over 75s.

Establishing an economic recovery based on fairness requires common and universal access to infrastructure. A recent BBC World Service Survey identified that over 70 per cent of people believe internet access is a fundamental right. We need to be clear about the scale of the challenge facing us to achieve digital inclusion.

The second speaker was Helen Milner, MD, UK Online Centres who commented in opening that she thought it impossible to be a full UK citizen today, let alone in ten years time, without using digital services.

Without digital services your life is more expensive, more complicated, and you have less choice over what you buy, what you do and how you communicate. Being digital doesn’t mean you don’t also value face-to-face contact, for example in keeping close to your family, but it makes it a lot easier.

Helping those not online to access the internet is important, not only from an equality and social justice point of view, but on the basis of the economic case.

In the UK approximately 82 per cent of UK citizens are internet users. She thought that the state should help those groups such as older and disabled people, those from low income households and some geographical communities that are less online to get online.

She concluded by saying that she expected all of us, state, businesses, society, family and friends to help all citizens, that want to, to be digital citizens well before the next ten years are up.

The final speaker was Richard D North from the Institute of Economic Affairs. A self-proclaimed right-winger he said that the state has an obligation to communicate cheaply with its citizens and that citizens have an obligation to be able to receive these messages by being literate, numerate and equipped.

He went on to say that the state should not guarantee universal, one-price high-speed broadband the way that the Royal Mail guaranteed the penny delivery and that workable broadband can come down any old phone lines or via mobile devices.

He said that the very poor can be given access to low-speed broadband, which is enough to satisfy their human rights, (e.g. education), but that there is no case for providing expensive, high-speed connections.

He said that digital access is a good thing and that the poorest in our society need it most. He had these suggestions

  • 3G dongles and basic tablets don’t cost much;
  • digital pay walls make it easy to give poor people cheap access;
  • digital services can communicate easily with illiterates;
  • the very poor should pay a digital access fee instead of a TV licence;
  • the state has a right to use digital communication only.

The debate

After the speakers, each table was given questions to consider. The following are some of the questions and answers.

One question was: Is digital literacy in the 21st century an equivalent competence to literacy and numeracy in the 20th? If so who has the key responsibility to equip citizens accordingly?

One person stated that it is almost impossible to be digitally literate today without being traditionally literate. This might change at some point in the future, as usability and accessibility of software improves and as the population increasingly comprises ‘digital natives’.

But, for now and the near future, digital literacy is a competence required ‘as well as’ traditional literacy competences. Many people need to transfer or translate existing skills - such needs present educational challenges.

Another question was: Does the state have a duty to ensure that all public services are accessible and useable by all before removing other channels of communication?’

One answer was that running services only via the internet isn’t enough because it is hard to use if you are blind and / or illiterate. And as many government, in particular local government sites, aren’t that easy to use, accessible alternatives should be provided for those who can’t or won’t use the internet. And, also, what about people without bank accounts? How do we engage them or don’t we? Are we accepting that some people will be excluded anyway?

The group was also asked should those who decide not to use digital channels (sometimes termed digital resisters) pay extra for retaining non-digital channels of communication with public services?

It was agreed that if citizen services are provided online, there at least needs to be some alternative, i.e. not all human interactions can be reduced to a ‘digital’ web interaction. Technology is not, and probably cannot, be built to accommodate the different requirements of individuals in any transaction.

An example is with online interactions where a person’s needs may not fit the ‘customised’ structure of a set of questions or options; often you need to speak to someone to sort out your problem. Digital inclusion need not, and probably should not, apply to all services as there are some things that need human interaction such as seeing a doctor.

The group was also asked what role should the BCS, as the lead professional body, play in promoting digital inclusion and minimising digital exclusion?

It was thought that BCS has significant influence over the SFIA skills framework and so inclusion, usability and accessibility should become central elements of that framework and should be embedded in software design and delivery.

To begin addressing the softer issues, such as trust, BCS could provide information on safety and security of systems and act as a centre of trusted information and advice. The group recognised that this is an especially difficult aspect of the problem and that BCS alone could realistically only play a part in the wider societal initiatives that will be required.

Other ideas included BCS developing a qualification in accessibility and then pushing for the subject to be included in university computing degree syllabuses and also to put pressure on the public sector to use suitably qualified people by creating incentives.

The full version of this report is available online at: www.bcs.org/thoughtleadership