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Why we’re here

April 25, 2009

Bill Thompson explains the background to how we’ve got to the Digital Britain Unconference plan.

In October last year Stephen Carter was asked to prepare a wide-ranging “action plan” for the digital media economy, to form the basis of Government policy in this vitally important area.

Carter, whose career to date has encompassed advertising, running cable company NTL and working as chief executive of Ofcom as well as a brief period inside the strategy unit at Number 10 Downing Street, had recently been enobled and appointed minister for communications, technology and broadcasting reporting to both DCMS and BERR.

He set about his task in a the traditional manner, holding a series of meetings, forming an advisory group by inviting a suitable collection of ‘great and good’ to come along to a few meetings, and working behind the scenes on a series of recommendations that drew on the insights available from the likes of Tanya Byron, Francesco Caio, Andrew Chitty, Matthew d’Ancona and Andrew Gowers.

An interim report was written and published in February this year, accompanied by the usual ‘leaks’ to the paper in advance. As I pointed out at the time, it was notable for its lack of any real attempt to engage with the wider audience:

‘you’ll have to read through 72 pages of the report before you find a suggestion that “organisations or individuals interested in joining the discussion should register their interest at digitalbritain@berr.gsi.gov.uk”’

But of course the network is not to be resisted. The day the interim report was released the ‘verse lit up with comment, analysis, criticism and suggestions for improvement. The proposal for two megabit per second universal service by 2012 was derided while the suggestion for a Rights Agency lambasted. There wasn’t even a single mention of Facebook.

I set up a ‘digitalbritain’ Twitter account and started tweeting, writing in my BBC column that I would be happy to hand it over to Carter’s office if they asked for it – which they did, ten days later – while Tony Hirst and Joss Winn did a wonderful job of setting up an online “commentable” version of the interim report and even commissioning a ‘Fake Digital Britain’ report for crowdsourcing recommendations.

It quickly became clear that Carter’s colleagues inside the administration had discussed the issue with him in some depth and made him aware of the enormity of what was happening.

As a result he seems to have realised that previous ways of doing things, which were never particularly inclusive or indeed effective, were simply not going to cut it in an online and social media world.
It was certainly not going to be acceptable to have the main government recommendations on digital development drawn up through a process that privileged the elite whose voices were already being heard inside Whitehall and offered those on the outside the option of sending an email and hoping to be listened to.

So things changed, for the better, and the consultation process developed a momentum that has resulted in a wide debate and a large number of submissions, all of which are being read and considered. A Digital Britain Forum was created, with links to other resources, and a real debate ensued, spread around the blogosphere, the twitterverse and all the other unnamed spaces that constitute the online realm.

But old habits die hard. On 17 April 2009 the British Library hosted a high-profile ‘Digital Britain Summit’ which was clearly seen as an opportunity to get a lot of press coverage for the government and show its willingness to engage and the inclusiveness of the whole debate. There was a live video stream, regular tweeting and a live blog.

Sadly, for many listening in the day turned into a typical parade of the muddied thinking that so often characterises these ‘high level’ events. Gordon Brown and Andy Burnham typified the ‘old guys in suits and ties’ nature of the speakers, and not even live blogging from the remarkable Dave Briggs could redeem things.

Bloggers like Paul Canning and Donald Clark were among the many whose acerbic comments get to the heart of what was wrong with the day, and the Twitterverse was equally negative.

I wasn’t there. It never felt like an event that was going to be worth making the trip to London for, especially during the school holidays. Instead I watched online, fitting it in with other more important tasks like drinking coffee. But at one point in the afternoon I tweeted plaintively:

@billt: We should have got our act together and organised a #digitalbritain unconference for today, with tea & biscuits. And talked sense.

This seemed to hit a nerve, and the result is what you see before you. Thanks to the unfailing energy and enthusiasm of Kathryn Corrick, who can take an idea and run with it faster than anyone I’ve met, there’s a website, there’s a schedule, there’s a list of things to do and we’ve got a contact inside the Digital Britain team who says that even though the official deadline for comments has passed they are still listening carefully.

Over the next few days more events will be organised, so keep an eye open here – or sort out your own meeting. Get something written up, get it back to us, and we’ll see if we can’t help our Government, there to serve our interests, do some sensible things to help the network society move forward.

The change in Carter’s approach to consultation since the interim report was published has been remarkable, and the growing use of social media by the report team will surely mean that these new tools have a place in the final report. But we’ve got a few days left in which to add more to the discussion, to take our experience and skills and dreams for Digital Britain and turn them into positive, structured and achievable suggestions that can be incorporated into the final report.

There isn’t much time, and there is no room for negativity, carping or destructive criticism if we want to make a difference, both by making the final report as good as it can be and by showing how effective consultation can be a tool of democratic engagement in the digital age.
Let’s go to work.

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10 Comments
  1. April 25, 2009 8:53 pm

    Brilliant! so little time, so much needs doing, will try to organise something in between the scarecrow festival and three funerals this week, keep at it everyone, they can’t be allowed to fall for the BT crap and make us suffer for another generation with an obsolete copper network, Bring On the eNdGAme, Fibre to the Homes, Businesses and people of UKplc.
    power to the people, keep rockin.

  2. April 26, 2009 4:53 pm

    Excellent!

    I need to get talking with all my contacts in Wales to see what we can do here…especially as Wales is first in line for the analogue switch off!

    @juliadesigns (personal)
    @swwtel (work)

    on Twitter

  3. April 27, 2009 12:55 am

    I was at the Summit. I agree wholeheartedly with your final para above.

    I wrote about it here: http://digital-citizen.co.uk/wordpress/?p=589

    I’m involved in community action on connectivity through http://www.broadband-uk.coop and would be happy to talk about our projects at an Unconference.

    Excellent article – thanks!

  4. May 19, 2009 5:33 pm

    I was also at the Summit. My comments about it here http://herd.typepad.com/herd_the_hidden_truth_abo/2009/04/digital-britain-afterthoughts.html

    For what it’s worth, here also is my submission to the interim – a result of a whole bunch of conversations http://herd.typepad.com/herd_the_hidden_truth_abo/2009/03/digital-britain-interim-redux.html

    Brilliant initiative, folks

    Sorry I couldn’t participate any further. Looking forward to reading the digest!

    • May 26, 2009 3:25 pm

      Thanks Mark. We’ll be putting the final report up as soon as we can. Just trying to figure out the best technical way for people to sign it.

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