It's based on the experience of workers using ICT and other resources to support residents in Shipley, West Yorkshire, and on interviews with residents themselves. The main point that it leads on to is that the ICT can fit more or less anywhere in the process, as a very significant accelerator; but it is not the fundamental requirement nor the main focus unless the individual makes it so.
I'm reminded of this by a recent flurry of interest in how to shape provision of ICT in low-income areas.
I first went to Shipley in about 1999, to find out about their pioneering online project which took ISDN connections from Shipley College into community centres to support basic skills courses. It was, and still is, high quality community-based learning, with sensitive support provided by committed and highly experienced community workers.
Around that time I was on one of the government's 'Policy Action Teams' ('PAT15' on 'access to IT') and the Shipley project was among a chosen few round the country which helped us understand the role of the technologies in the quality of life of people who experience exclusion. What they offered gave texture because we engaged local people to talk to us about it at their pace and in their terms.
Now the government has released several reports about 'digital inclusion' and the social impact of their strategic promotion of the technologies, and it makes a curious impression. The two I've looked at have clearly been expensive exercises, and together they provide an important new impetus to the agenda, acknowledging that the relation between social exclusion and digital exclusion is subtle and complex. But neither report seems to add much to what was known six or seven years ago.
For example, Ipsos MORI were commissioned for a research study on digital inclusion and social impact, and their report notes among the conclusions:
Partnerships with local community groups and organisations were key in reaching the target audiences and delivering holistic provision addressing multiple issues
Working with hard to reach audiences involves long-term relationships with partners and individuals
Taking technology out to local, familiar and safe environments was essential to reach new audiences
The flexibility to adapt the curriculum to participants' needs and interests was vital in engaging and holding their interest
Informal peer to peer learning and formal volunteering were key to the sustainability of the projects, and to the progression and self-esteem of participants.
All very valuable points. All put across clearly in the early work carried out under the aegis of PAT 15, before 2002. In those days we didn't have the budget for large-scale systematic studies (I think the first report was done for £2,500) but we compensated by sounding-out our findings across the community sector.
And while the MORI report includes much-needed quantitative material, some of it is crying out for clarification. For example, Figure 12 ('Social interaction') includes responses to this question:
Which of these do you do ‘often’?
'Meet up with new friends' (38%)
There's no explanation of what is meant by meeting up with new friends. Call me old-fashoined, but surely you can't do that very often, because after a while they won't be 'new' friends anymore. But hey, I'm not an expensive consultancy company offering survey analysis, so what would I know (apart from the probability that MORI are not going to be proud of this hurried-looking document).
The second report, Community perspectives on digital inclusion, is wholly qualitative. It summarises 'insights and experiences from community and third sector organisations involved in initiatives aimed at opening up digital technologies to excluded communities.'
The categorisation of 'excluded communities' (not just the language) feels clumsy and insensitive. The framework is clear here though and the scope more ambitious. But again the refusal to build on what was known in the past is apparent. Take for example this recommendation for working with low-income households:
'fuse IT training with literacy classes and have skilled teachers who can teach both.'
In Shipley, they've been doing that for more or less ten years, word should have spread by now.
Does this matter? Well, ask yourself what it's like if you lived somewhere like that. Researchers came in several years ago using public money, talked to you at length, went away, wrote a report to government, and nothing happened. I and others worked hard to get the findings onto the desks of officials and into policy. The college staff and community workers carried on slogging away doing outrageous hours trying to help people get connected and learn stuff and sort out their lives. They were often successful, but successes were followed by another cohort of tangled identities mingling-in. (And, going back to the graphic at the top of this post, the hardest thing was getting them through the door - many never made it).
Then another bunch of researchers start asking things - this time with more clout but less understanding of what are the personal and social forces that bring you to this community centre in this locality at this time. How much faith would you put in the general process of public policy and the specific intentions of the 'Digital Inclusion Strategy'?