Bookmark and ShareStephen Whitehead is a project manager in the Democracy and Participation team at nef

This week’s National Digital Inclusion Conference was a relatively upbeat affair – a thousand techies and bureaucrats itching to do something – anything – to take the digital revolution to the rump of luddites who remain stubbornly offline. The solutions proposed were many and varied – from paying the unemployed to lay fibre-optics up people’s driveways, to teaching your neighbour how to email. But lurking amidst all these juicy carrots was a worrying undercurrent of stick. Several times across the last couple of days, I’ve heard people have talking openly about using the withdrawal of offline services to force people online.

To be fair, these were all reasonable proposals by reasonable people: laden with humanising caveats about support, education and showing people the benefits of online services. But still, they sent a little shiver up my spine. The idea of withdrawing service to drive people across the digital divide is, in my view, dangerous and short-sighted.

Firstly, and most obviously, there is the danger of excluding people from vital services. In a time of huge financial pressures on all parts of government it will be easy for those comforting caveats to slip away, as agencies rush to withdraw but skimp on support. This is especially troubling where the responsibility (and the budget) for service delivery is held by an agency with little or no direct responsibility for digital inclusion. It will be easy for them to withdraw offline services to save money (indeed, cost saving was explicitly cited as a motivation by some) and assume that support with going online will happen elsewhere. Inevitably, the effect of withdrawing offline services will be most keenly felt by the already excluded who will have to use cumbersome work-arounds or simply miss out.

Secondly, and more fundamentally, this idea reflects an impoverished view of what digital inclusion could mean. Just accessing the same services as before, albeit with quicker turn-around times or less hassle, is hardly the transformative prospect that we might aspire to. Real digital inclusion means much more than being a more able consumer of public services, or for that matter, a more able consumer of cheap flights and cheap DVDs.

Inclusion means being a part of something – a family, a community, a workplace, a network of friends. And digital inclusion means being a part of something online. Making people digitally included means giving them the tools and skills to build relationships online.

Rather than forcing people online to do the things that they already do, we should be thinking about what digital public services can offer which will make us want to be a part of them – and how to connect them up to people’s valued real-world networks.

Forcing people online, if it works at all, will create a class of digital refugees, isolated and disempowered. But by supporting people to come online and form meaningful, effective relationships, perhaps we can create a nation of digital citizens – confident in their power to work together for their common good.