It may be a slight disillusionment with the Big Society project, but I sense I am danger of becoming predictably critical of the Government. So it is a relief to be able to say something nice for a change.
I have just returned from chairing sessions for the 2011 National Digital Inclusion conference. I chaired the whole conference for the last two years but this time the organisers had the impetus of Martha Lane Fox’s Race Online 2012 campaign and lots of corporate partners so they were able to go upmarket and book Jon Snow. It was only when the great man pulled out at the last minute that they had to revert to yours truly (to be honest I’m happy nowadays even to be a substitute).
Anyway, Martha had done really well with her campaign. She was able to reveal yesterday that she has more than met her target of identifying more than 100,000 volunteers to help get the missing nine million on-line by next year. Just as importantly she has achieved something I always failed to do when a Government insider: get a joined up and ambitious approach to technology across Whitehall.
She told the conference she had spoken to a cabinet committee comprising 16 ministers and got them all to sign up to the idea of ‘digital by default’. The idea is simply that digital only should be the basis for new services with the parallel use of paper based systems having to be justified, rather than the old way of assuming paper and adding digital later. Of course, as Martha recognised, there are issues of access and inclusion but digital by default is a powerful way of increasing on-line take up and making real cost savings (something we all support).
Then following Martha was DCMS Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt, (thanks a lot by the way to the tweeter who sent me a message just before I introduced him saying ‘make sure you don’t make the same mistake as Jim Naughtie’). Jeremy’s big moment was when he announced a new Government target that 90% of the country should have access to super-fast broadband by 2015, which is apparently a more ambitious target than any other major European country.
It is a common, and I think often fair, criticism of the Coalition that while it is very determined about cutting the deficit it doesn't have anything like such a clear and credible story about supporting growth (or at least not one that goes beyond a standard free market assertion that a smaller state creates more space for the private sector). It remains to be seen how credible Jeremy hunt’s commitment is and it is, of course, one thing for 90% of the country to be able to access super-fast broadband, it is quite another for nine in ten people to actually have that access themselves.
But if we do hit the target it will make a genuine contribution to making possible major advances in public service delivery and engagement and a step change in productivity. It would certainly be good news story for the voters just before a General Election.
Al Mathers Anthony Painter
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