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Social Inclusion in the Information Society

George HALL
Director of Corporate Affairs
ICL

Abstract

This paper examines government initiatives in the field of the information society and problems associated with these. A way forward based on a bottom up approach involving as many actors as possible in a local community is proposed which it is believed is more likely to deliver tangible and sustainable results.

 

1. Introduction

At the European Council meeting at Feira in June, the Heads of State and Government of the EU gave their support to the e-Europe initiative proposed by President Prodi and Commissioner Liikanen.

At the core of the e-Europe initiative sit two interwoven strands of European public policy:

  • concern about European competitiveness in the emerging global digital economythe
  • concern about the continuing and perhaps widening of the "digital divide" between the haves and the have nots in the Information Society.

These concerns are not new, they were implicitly reflected in the drafting of the EU's first Information Society initiative - which was launched in May 1994 in advance of the European Council in Corfu in June 1994 - under the rubric of "Europe and the global information society - Recommendations to the European Council". This report is usually referred to as the Bangemann report (Martin Bangemann was the Commissioner who commissioned the report) but it is noteworthy that a certain Romano Prodi - then an Italian industrialist - was also closely involved. The Bangemann report identified 10 action areas or applications:

  • Teleworking
  • Distance Learning
  • A Network for Universities and Research Centres
  • Telematic Services for SMEs
  • Road Traffic Management
  • Air Traffic Control
  • Healthcare Networks
  • Electronic Tendering
  • Trans-European Public Administration Network
  • City Information Highways

 

2. The e-Europe initiative

The new Prodi/Liikanen e-Europe initiative identifies three broad objectives:

  • A cheaper, faster, secure Internet
  • Investing in people and skills
  • Stimulate the use of the Internet

but also has a range of more targetted actions designed to speed up Europe's embrace of the digital economy:

  • accelerate the legislative programme to provide an appropriate regulatory environment
  • provide a faster Internet for researchers and students
  • secure networks and smart cards
  • European youth into the digital age
  • working in the knowledge-based economy
  • participation in the knowledge-based economy
  • Government on-line: electronic access to public services
  • health on-line
  • European digital content for global networks
  • Intelligent Transport Systems

There are a number of common strands which link the two initiatives e.g. the emphasis on education, the need to tackle the problems in Europe's transport infrastructure, the need to improve the competitiveness of European firms vis a vis our main competitors, particularly from North America. But there are also a number of striking differences between the two initiatives. Between 1994 and 2000 the Internet has emerged as an essential element in our global communications infrastructure and is now being viewed increasingly as a "public utility" as important to the public good as access to water, energy, transport, public broadcasting, etc.

But the issue which is explicitly recognised in the Prodi/Liikanen vision is that of social inclusion (also called the digital divide). This paper looks at the lessons which have been learnt since 1994 (when the Bangemann report was published) and which could provide input to the implementation of the Prodi/Liikanen e-Europe initiative.

The basic thesis is that if these "top down" European initiatives (or even national initiatives) are not supported by "bottom up" community regeneration programmes there is little likelihood of success. This premise is based on experience gained through ICL's involvement in a number of Information Society initiatives in the UK and other Member States, particularly Finland and Ireland, but also in the EU Accession Countries.

While "top down" projects, i.e. projects promoted by the EU or national (or regional) administration are valuable - not least because they provide funding and a sense of direction - they are likely to under-perform because they can not be sufficiently sensitive to local conditions, needs and infrastructure. The power of the web is its ability to link disparate groups or communities of users without forcing them into a "one size fits all" straitjacket. This is, in practice, counter cultural to the ways in which Government organisations behave - and this is the root of the problem.

 

3. Problems with Government Initiatives

With a few notable exceptions e.g. in Finland, Government organisations have been slow to embrace the web. There are many reasons for this:

  • Government budgets across the Union are under pressure and this inhibits investment in new technology
  • Furthermore, Government Departments and Agencies tend to have rather ponderous procurement practices which slows down their implementation of new technologies
  • The Internet challenges hierarchies and most Government institutions retain rigid hierarchical structures
  • Elected officials are held accountable for public funds and this can discourage a willingness to embark on projects with elements of high risk e.g. involving new technology
  • But, most unfortunately, Government institutions operate traditionally in "vertical" silos i.e. they are responsible/accountable for specific activities: they tend to guard their "turf" jealously to ensure that their funding and their raison d'etre are not challenged, and this can lead to conflicting programmes and waste.

But whatever the reasons, the fact is that Government Agencies are not suited to lead Information Society initiatives because they are themselves laggards in embracing the Information Society. Leadership in the global Information Society comes from the private sector. The private sector is more comfortable with the concept of "risk/reward" and has invested significantly in new systems, in training and in research. In short the private sector can supply the tools to build the Information Society; it must now help to define the vision and then help to implement it.

In the debate about the digital divide, opinions are often expressed about the aversion of particular groups in society to new technology. Research has indeed shown that the elderly and the low educated have had such problems. There has also been a clear gender differentiation e.g. new technology has often been marketed as "toys for boys".

There is a belief that these problems are now much less widespread than before. The revolutions in mobile telephony and digital TV are changing the rules. Almost every sector of our society can gain access now at an affordable cost - provided a modern ICT infrastructure is in place. So why, then, do we still have a problem in embedding our Information Society?

Partly it is simply a question of time. Until recently the technology needed to access the web - the PC - was both relatively expensive and relatively complicated to use. Telecom access costs are also too high in Europe (compared to N. America). The mobile revolution is changing this. People now can access the Internet via a much cheaper and easier to use platform, the WAP enabled mobile phone or an interactive digital TV. And the Union is now moving much faster to unbundle the local loop, thus encouraging a much more aggressive and competitive market for Internet access which will rapidly reduce the costs of going on-line, whether for business, education or entertainment.

But also, it is a matter of communication. Information Society initiatives have been managed by Government Agencies with little experience in marketing new concepts. This is an area where the private sector excels - witness the success of the mobile telephony industry.

Finally, many Information Society initiatives have had little relevance and visibility to the general public (the possible exception here is skills training).

This is where the "bottom up" approach involving as many actors as possible in a local community is more likely to deliver tangible and sustainable results.

 

4. The Way Forward

Local initiatives should, wherever possible, involve Local Government but it should also involve the local business community, local education and skills providers and NGOs. The place where the new economy (i.e. the Information Society) meets the old public economy is in the workplace, the school, the library, the doctor's surgery or the pharmacy and the home. These are the touchstones for the majority of the population. The starting point should be, in our experience, an audit of local needs. This should be followed up by an exercise to match the capabilities already present in the community (in the public sector, in the private sector, in colleges or training centres) with the expectations of the community. Only then should a local Information Society initiative be launched.

Therefore, it is imperative that all of these organisations - together with technology suppliers - are brought together when defining a local Information Society Strategy. It can be done, but it requires vision and commitment. The e-Europe initiative supplies a clear and practicable vision but the commitment to implement such strategies has to come from the community. This may cause problems for the public authorities which are expected to fund all or some of the costs of these initiatives - but the question quickly becomes binary - do we want unsuccessful initiatives (simply because they are tidy for the accountants and the accountable public officials) or do we want successful initiatives that involve risk?

The answer is clear. We want successful, community-focused projects. And the private sector, working in partnership with the public sector and NGOs has an important role to play. Furthermore, this should be done in a spirit of enlightened self-interest rather than altruism or a demonstration of public spiritedness.

The private sector is already supplying the ICT infrastructure and the access devices to these communities, it is only logical that they play a role in defining how to reach into the communities by using the leverage of the infrastructure and the new access devices to pull themselves up into the Information Society.

Partnership works both ways. While the public sector must get better at devolving decision-making to local communities, including the private sector, the private sector must get better at engaging with communities. Both sides must be willing to partner and share the risks and the rewards, but in ICL's experience, the rewards for both communities and for their industrial partners far outweigh the risks.