The cost of digital inclusion £875 million?

Some very welcome coverage of Digital Inclusion issues in the mainstream media today, including on BBC TV Breakfast programme and on BBC Radio 4’s Today. This is stimulated by the publication of a report by The Policy Exchange which estimates that it would cost £875 million to ensure everyone in the UK has the digital skills necessary to thrive online in the modern world.

Now, while I welcome this much-needed focus on a vital issue, which exercises me greatly, the way the debate is framed gives me concerns.

Firstly, there is that figure, £875m. And it is not the first time this figure has been quoted as the same sum was mentioned in a report earlier this year commissioned by the Tinder Foundation [pdf]. I don’t doubt the figure is accurate, but I still don’t think it is helpful. I think politicians, in particular, look at it and say “we can’t afford this”. I am a great believer in biting off manageable chunks of a problem, and I think presenting the issue as one big problem with an £875m price-tag presents a sizeable barrier. I wonder if not enough work is being done to learn from the many innovative local initiatives which are taking place all over the country, and working out how these can be applied elsewhere, from within existing resources. The other point is that people learn best from others like themselves. A lot of the focus needs to be on voluntary digital champions who can cascade their skills to their friends and neighbours. Taking this approach may well reduce the costs.

My second concern is about the framing of the debate around “digital skills”. It tends to set people off into thinking about training courses and teachers. In my opinion, and based on experience, this is not about training courses; it is about demonstrating to people what they are missing out on. This is best done in a fun way, in unusual settings, and with zero emphasis on “teaching” and “skills”.