Page last updated at 10:21 GMT, Thursday, 16 July 2009 11:21 UK

Your country needs you connected

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News

Lrd Kitchener's WW1 recruitment poster
Martha Lane Fox is recruiting an army of onliners

If you weren't online what would send you dashing for the nearest mouse and keyboard?

That is the dilemma facing Martha Lane Fox, erstwhile co-founder of Lastminute.com and freshly appointed Digital Champion.

It may sometimes seem like the world and her brother are tweeting or posting messages on Facebook but the reality is that 17 million Britons have never been online.

They have chosen not to do so, seeing the internet as irrelevant to their lives, too expensive or simply too daunting.

Now Ms Lane Fox is on the hunt for refuseniks.

She hosted the first meeting of her taskforce on Tuesday and its strategy will be to target the six million poorest Brits first as the correlation between social and digital exclusion becomes ever harder to ignore.

Ms Lane Fox has a tough job. As Professor Bill Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute points out, she is trying to convert those who have no desire to be converted.

"The big question is how do you get people to experience a technology that they are predisposed not to be interested in," he asked.

Government services may not be a killer app but Whitehall definitely wants to do far more business online. Currently 80% of its transactions are done with the bottom 25% of society and migrating services online offers great cost savings.

The idea that you can buy a car tax disc online or enter a tax return, while useful, may not exactly excite the people Ms Lane Fox is targeting although a job search set up by the Department for Work and Pensions has averaged a pretty impressive one million searches per day.

Coventry City Council has taken the radical step of putting applications and bidding for social housing purely online.

The scheme has driven more people to the Foleshill UK Online centre, one of 6,000 centres around the UK designed to get more people computer literate and using the web.

"It is an internet-based service and unless you are computer literate it is not easy. It is a way of us helping people to help themselves," said Chrissie Morris, an advice officer at the centre

But putting services purely online could be a dangerous policy, thinks John Fisher, chief executive of Citizens Online, a charity set up ten years ago to target the most hard-to-reach of the digitally excluded.

"There is a danger that people move too quickly to an online model. Some cheap air tickets can now only be booked online and some offers are available exclusively on the web. The government has to be careful not to follow this route," he said.

Andrew Ferguson, editor of ThinkBroadband, agrees.

"The danger that being a Digital Champion carries is that by enabling more and more to interact with government services online, those that don't use online services through their own choice may find things increasingly difficult.

"For local physical services like the Post Office we need to consider what effect an almost purely online social welfare system would have," he said.

Educating gangs

Users at a UK Online centre
An older learner shows a teenager the ropes at a Sheffield online centre

Defining what is meant by digital exclusion could be one of Ms Lane Fox's first jobs.

Jenny Pillar works in one of the 6,000 UK Online centres around the UK. She thinks that the government puts too much emphasis on the idea that going online improves lives.

Gleadless Valley, the deprived part of Sheffield she works in, is made up of council houses and sheltered accommodation.

Persuading people to go online by playing up how computers can improve skills and education has not been a success.

"We tend to focus on the leisure aspects first rather than educational reasons because that immediately puts down the shutters," she said.

That is not to say the centre hasn't had educational successes.

On the estate there has been a problem with gang members.

"We got to know them because they were hanging around outside. One of them eventually did a literacy course and has a qualification now that he wouldn't have had if the centre and its computers hadn't been here," she said.

But for Ms Pillar, there is no point in forcing people online for "digital inclusion's sake"

"People here may not have computers but there are very few without top of the range mobile phones. Some who have used the centre haven't been able to read but they can use the internet and would consider themselves digitally included to the level they want to be," she said.

It means it has been hard to recruit regular users to the centre. Themes, such as family days, have proved popular but numbers remain low. In the last year there have been 450 people regularly using the centre. The population of the area is around 10,000.

This perhaps illustrates the scale of the job facing Ms Lane Fox.

Silver bullet

Cabinet meeting
There is no longer a Digital Inclusion Minister

One thing she is unlikely to do is throw kit at people. In the past the government has run a whole series of schemes offering cheap or free equipment but it has never been a huge success.

With broadband costs falling and plenty of schemes around offering cheap new or recycled equipment access is becoming less of a barrier.

A recent report from regulator Ofcom found that 43% of those currently offline would remain disconnected even if they were given a free PC and broadband connection.

"The challenge of getting people online and using services will not just be a case of buying people computers and giving them an hour or two of training," said Mr Ferguson.

"Computer use is an ongoing learning experience, as those who already help friends and family will testify to, so ensuring that free local resources are available to people will be important," he said.

Citizens Online has been running its Everybody Online campaign for five years. In that time it has claims to have converted 88,000 people to become regular online users at an average cost of £50 per person.

Ms Lane Fox is likely to have a budget of around £300m which may be rather modest for the task in hand, thinks Mr Fisher.

"The government may be looking for a silver bullet but it is pretty simple. People need to be shown the technology in an environment that they feel comfortable in and find things to do that directly relate to their lives," said Mr Fisher.

The government has calculated that each new person online creates an extra £220 per year to the country's GDP (Gross Domestic Product).

Industrial strength

His advice to Ms Lane Fox is to build on best practice.

"At a local level there are loads of great schemes going on but they are fragmented. Ms Lane Fox needs to give them industrial strength and a national focus," he said.

Some critics believe the government is paying lip-service to the problem of digital inclusion.

They question how much Ms Lane Fox can achieve given she is only going to devote two days per week over the course of the next two years to her Digital Champion role.

The government too seems to have downgraded the problem. In 2008, Gordon Brown acknowledged the importance of persuading more people online and appointed a Digital Inclusion cabinet minister, in the form of Paul Murphy.

But following recent reshuffles, that post has now disappeared and the issue has come back under the wider remit of the Communications Minister.

Lord Carter currently holds that post but will be leaving the role at the summer recess and no successor has been appointed as yet.

Mr Fisher thinks Ms Lane Fox will be hampered by the government's lack of commitment to the problem.

"Without powerful and informed Cabinet level support, what chance has she of opening the closed doors of the major Whitehall Departments who simply refuse to accept that there is even an issue to be addressed?" he asked.

Others question whether Ms Lane Fox, who was educated at private school and boasts a marquess for a great-grandfather, is the ideal candidate for the job.

"In terms of Martha Lane Fox herself, I don't think she is seen as someone at the forefront of the technology race by the general public, and may not be someone who immediately makes people feel like she is working for them," said Mr Ferguson.

"Someone who was more readily identifiable by the sector of the population the Digital Champion is most likely to be working with may have been a better choice," he said.

She is most likely to be judged on her results.

"The great thing about this type of campaign is that its very easy to measure success," said Alex Salter, co-founder of broadband measurement site SamKnows.

Given that we're looking to get six million people online in this first phase I'd like to see a trigger-style site, showing how many of the six million come online over the next 12 months," he added.



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