The issue of “digital inclusion” is usually considered to be a matter of social policy. Events at this year’s ACCAN conference Dollars and Bytes – Communications affordability now and tomorrow remind us that it is part of economic policy and the impact it will have.
The Postmaster-General was one of ten Ministers in the first Barton Ministry. Together with the portfolios of PM, External (Foreign) Affairs, Attorney-General, Trade, Defence and Treasury it has existed ever since. Prior to Federation each of the colonies had their own Postmaster-General.
The title of Postmaster-General was dropped in the second Fraser Ministry of December 1975, with the title of Minister for Post and Telecommunications reflecting the creation of Australia Post and Telecom Australia as statutory authorities in July of that year. That was the official end of the entity previously referred to as the PMG (though if you look hard you will still find it stamped on the occasional manhole cover).
The portfolio name has changed a number of times since, with the six years of the last Labor Government being notable for the inclusion of “Digital Economy” in the title.
In his pre-recorded opening for the conference the current Postmaster-General (or Minister for Communications) Malcolm Turnbull observed that the “digital economy” now was the economy. In doing so he seemed to suggest that we shouldn’t need to talk about it anymore, even though he does have a commitment to release an updated National Digital Economy Strategy.
Minister Turnbull also observed, as he often does, that income has a big impact on whether individuals use the internet, but I didn’t note which actual data point he used. The ABS 2012-13 Household Use of IT reported that 39 per cent of people in the lowest income quintile had not used the Internet at any location, while only 3 per cent of the highest quintile hadn’t.
Increasing online participation of Australian households was one of the eight stated goals of the original NDES in 2011. In discussing the objective the strategy noted:
Targeted action is required to minimise the extent to which digital exclusion overlaps with, and exacerbates, social exclusion, and to maximise the extent to which the benefits outlined above are enjoyed by all Australian families and communities.
Improved online government service delivery had an initial goal of “by 2020, four out of five Australians will choose to engage with the government through the internet or other type of online service.” In the 2013 update this was augmented with the adoption of the policy of Digital First in the design and delivery of government services.
Under Digital First the update said agencies would:
Commit to using digital channels as their main form of service delivery; commit to the milestones in the Digital First roadmap; and implement end-to-end online processing for government services, with a single authentication process by the end of 2017.
Digital First has since been replaced (or augmented) with the new Digital Transformation Office. But conference participants noted that the people who make the most frequent transactional use of government services are heavily represented in the group that doesn’t use the internet.
It was therefore pleasing to see that the two organisations that grew out of the original PMG are participating in programs to address digital inclusion.
Telstra is focussing on measurement as a partner in the development of a Digital Inclusion Index. The initiative, in conjunction with Swinburne Institute for Social Research and Centre for Social Impact, is based on the recognition that digital inclusion is one of the key social justice challenges facing policy makers and communities worldwide. They note:
The internet has transformed almost every aspect of our lives. But for the 4 million Australians who are still not online, the education, health, social and financial benefits of being connected remain out of reach.
And we know that digital disadvantage coincides with other forms of social and economic disadvantage, so those that can potentially benefit most from being connected are at greater risk of being left behind.
Their website isn’t fully live until 10 September but you can register for updates and to participate as they develop the index. The starting point will be the European Union’s Digital Economy and Society Index. InnovationAus.com has previously noted the risks with some of these indices; that they wind up being measures that have no explanatory value. The consultation on the index should assist in avoiding these pitfalls.
Australia Post has taken the human factor approach by partnering with InfoXchange in the GoDigi project. Go Digi is a national four year digital literacy program with the goal of supporting more than 300,000 Australians to improve their digital skills. As part of their program 2016 will be the “Year of Digital Inclusion” to be supported by events and pop-up community festivals.
An interesting policy question is how much of the work conducted under the previous government’s Digital Hubs programs can be usefully applied by GoDigi. (There is also potentially some cross-over between GoDigi and a program run by Telstra Alumni that provides Digital Ambassador Resources.)
Anyone with an interest in digital innovation should have a matching interest in digital inclusion. While government shouldn’t absent itself from this field of endeavour it is really pleasing to see Australian business partnering with academics and community groups to address it.
Both programs have opportunity for participation; if your business depends on a digitally inclusive marketplace or you just want to make our society better then get on board.