Digital by diktat

October 1, 2012

The recent comments and debate about the value of ‘digital by default’ or ‘digital by design’ and how ‘assisted digital’ will get around the concerns I and others have expressed had me thinking in a wider context. Most of those involved in the discussions are relatively young and if they aren’t part of generation Y they at least come from a generation where personal computing has been a regular feature of life.

Those making the decisions about ‘digital by default’ e.g. MP’s and Ministers will have offices paid out of the public purse where PA’s and secretaries will handle their electronic communications along with the paper and telephones. How many of them are actually digitally literate I wonder? There were well-voiced doubts about an earlier Prime Minister, who instigated much of the electronic government malarkey and his personal ability to use a computer (i.e. Tony Blair).

Much has been made in local government about councillors having PC’s or iPad’s paid for by their councils, whilst some councillors I have known have refused to have them on that very basis. Should councillors be compelled to use a publicly owned and paid for PC for their council business? Is it improving their role? Does it make them a better councillor? Should the council be paying for iPad, printer, consumables, internet connection or telephone line? Must the councillor have a .gov email address in order to represent their constituents?

If the answer to most of these questions is “yes”, we are definitely in a state of ‘digital by diktat’, where only those happy to use technology in all its changing manifestations can be electable. Then there is the question of the Data Protection Act (DPA) – we’ll leave Freedom of Information alone for the time being. If I email my MP, I expect only my MP to be reading it, but this won’t be the case! If I email my local councillor I imagine the DPA will assume that only he or she will read it, not members of the extended family who may also snaek access to do the online shopping or play games!

It is obviously better if MP’s and councillors can receive emails from citizens since it’s a quick and relatively cheap way to do business (for those with access to it, and the ability to use it), but does it then put those limited to pen and paper, or the telephone on a weakened footing democratically speaking?

The most important thing is for councillors or MP’s to be in touch with their electorates, not excluding them. If this involves having surgeries in different locations, a telephone where messages can be left, all well and good but does it require ever-changing technology and who should pay for it? The council manager will state that there is a need to transfer vital council papers to the councillor, that this will reduce the printing bill, that instead of paper communications can be viewed electronically during any meetings, but do any of these require the council to buy a PC or device for the councillor? One might insist that for data protection purposes, this is so – but does it stop anyone else using that machine? Mightn’t it be better to reduce the volume of paperwork our politicians are expected to cope with – how then do we present material that decisions need to be made on?

Which is more effective – a community policeman sat in front of an array of CCTV cameras watching the area, or one walking or cycling around speaking to people? In terms of elected representatives, which is more effective the one that can be seen in his or her constituency, or the one at the end of a smart phone? I am not intending to belittle the splendid work done by some MP’s, councillors, officers and other organizations to get political representatives safely online and communicating with citizens, what I am challenging is that it is now seen as another way to save money and in the process excluding that proportion of the population who for some reason are unable to be or do not wish to be ‘digital’, from being representatives or achieving representation.

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