Do you want to be included or engaged?

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke at Digital Engagement 2009.  This was held at Church House in London and was focused on local government and (as it implies in the title) digital engagement - or was it?  What I think I learned is that digital inclusion is very different from digital engagement, and I suspect that there is a divide between those who see the whole area as a purely social (or do I mean political?) problem and those who see the need to integrate technological capabilities into the mix and strive for more effective services.

The opening introduction, by Michael Cross, was interesting in that it contained the usual request to turn off mobile phones.  Given the audience, I wondered whether this was the right instruction.  After all, we had an official twitterer and the discussions were blogged after the event.  I surreptitiously checked twitter on my iPhone, but I don't think anyone noticed.  First up was Martha Lane Fox in her role as the Government champion for digital inclusion.  Having listened to what has been said in the area of inclusion politics for a few years now, I have formed the view that we need to get off the "it's not right" and "you won't believe what is happening in Rickmansworth" speeches and into real measures to ensure that we don't institutionalise our already existing digital underclass.  MLF obviously understands this, but I wasn't sure what resources she has to break the logjam. 

Next came a Martin Ferguson from Soctim, who gave a talk full of examples of real activity at the local level - but he was talking about engagement, not inclusion.  I was intermittently following a few of the people twittering from the back row, and noted that they were beginning to get restless and looking to attack the "suits" on the panel.  Since I was sitting on the stage as part of the panel, I was becoming slightly concerned that I was in a dangerous place. 

Next up came a Kip Meek, the chair of the Broadband Stakeholder Group.  I was disappointed that he set the bar so low, with low speed inclusion on what seemed like a slow timescale, but the timing was such that no-one got a chance to question him on his own.  I gave a short talk about our £30m programme of support for UK based businesses to provide innovative solutions to enable the digital revolution to happen faster.  I had neither the bravery nor the intellectual bandwidth to follow the twitter feed whilst I was talking, but checking the hash-tagged twitter feed that evening it looked like I had pleased those who see technology as part of the solution but been dismissed as business geeks by others. 

After the break there were two very practical talks - Robert Ling on the work in Yorkshire and Gary Ashby on NHS Choices - but it felt like the audience had made its collective mind up and wasn't going to be impressed.

This is the first event where I have been personally aware of the potential effect of social media.  Much of the anger and cynicism I saw in the hash-tagged feed didn't translate into open debate and was thus wasted, but it does show that a modern speaker in this sort of area needs to be more aware of the environment than they used to have to be. 

I found this helpful blog on the subject - too late for this event, but I think we need to bear this in mind for the future.  People listen with their own baggage and so interesting misinterpretations abound - at one point I was making the point that being digitally connected didn't necessarily mean using a computer and noted that MLF was using her iPhone.  This has been reported as I "caught her using twitter" during my talk - a report that conveys a negative slant I never intended.  I had, after all, been following on twitter during hers!  The point I was trying to make has, maybe, been lost.

There seems to have been a fair amount of angst in the community about it afterwards - see here, here, and here - which covered everything from the price and the closed nature of the event, to the inappropriateness of the speakers.

On reflection, I am schizophrenic about our participation in the conference.  On one hand, it wasn't what most of the participants wanted to hear, and they may not have listened to what we had to say.  On the other, we cannot talk about the integration of technology with society, both in terms of challenge and of uptake, unless we get better at telling them what is possible and what the advantages and weakness are.  Much to think about!!


Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:11

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