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partnerships:itf:socinc

Social Inclusion in the Information Society

by Kevin Harris, Community Development Foundation This paper was first given to a conference organised by the Society for Public Information Networks in November 1995, published in Inventing the Future, Partnerships for Tomorrow, January 1996.

The INSINC report was published by IBM in 1997 and is available at http://www.ibm.com/uk/en/

Introduction

This paper is based on some of the initial findings of a National Working Party on Social Inclusion in the Information Society (INSINC) established by Community Development Foundation and IBM UK in 1995. INSINC is considering in particular those policy measures which will be required to ensure that community groups and community organisations need not be excluded from the benefits of the developing technologies, notably online communications and multimedia.(1) The context for community organisations, in spite of increasing financial and political constraints for many of them, could be said to be promising. The main grounds for optimism reflect the traditions and culture of communication within the community sector, and the contribution which the technology can make in this respect. The new online environment offers two significant advantages:

  • the possibility of blending formal and informal information
  • and increased information sharing.

Both of these reflect particular strengths of community and voluntary organisations and so we might expect them to take advantage of the new technology and exploit it in significant and creative ways. Already many have, of course; but for many others, various barriers (which may or may not be acknowledged) remain, such as:

  • perceived relevance legitimacy of experimentation costs (real or perceived) time spent understanding and considering options exposure to technical failure lack of evidence of demonstrable benefit, and so on.

It follows that a key aspect of inclusion for such organisations is support and development work around access to and exploitation of IT: and local authorities have a leading role to play in this respect. In practice, community computing support has long been a relatively inexpensive requirement which could lead to significant improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of the community and voluntary sectors.(2) Only in a few cases has this strategic need been met, and seldom has its provision been evaluated. At present, this role is sometimes addressed in the context of partnership initiatives which are being set up to develop the information infrastructure within an area - the public information networks. There are numerous examples of such projects at present, most of them having two characteristics in particular: first, of necessity they comprise partnerships of local authority, private sector, academic and voluntary sector agencies, perhaps seeking to exploit a new or forthcoming cable network, perhaps based on a libraries network or in some cases some innovative combination; secondly, many of them are struggling with a new culture of experimentation, which contrasts with traditional management cultures. I shall discuss these two characteristics further.

Partnership

Involvement of community organisations in partnership initiatives may prove to be crucial. Social exclusion from the information society may well begin as soon as partnerships are formed which do not represent local communities. It's important to note that this means community groups and organisations, not just voluntary organisations. Authorities which consider that just talking to their local Council for Voluntary Service constitutes consulting with their community, are unlikely to achieve adequate representation and lay themselves open to accusations of spurious consultation at best. The rhetoric of community involvement is now widely accepted but the practice appears still to baffle many authorities. Sometimes this becomes apparent from attitudes towards 'community information'. Library services which invest in community information often do so very much in a top-down manner, collecting and making available in their own terms information about agencies known to them; and yet there is enormous potential for community organisations to self-publish online once they have access to the systems. Enabling such agencies to contribute should be an essential part of an authority's information strategy. Part of the problem here has to do with the perceptions of community organisations and their appreciation of new opportunities. For most such agencies, the day to day skirmishes of financial survival, provision of critical services and other demands, leave little time to be invested in initiatives of uncertain promise, which cannot be applied directly to the organisation's short-term needs. In consequence, at the outset they may be reluctant to participate, and will require persuasion. Many community groups are only interested in ownership and consultation on issues which they feel comfortable with, issues which they know about. The authority's role here, (or the role of the agency leading on the network initiative), is not to take 'no answer' for an answer: to demonstrate the importance of the proposed network as a social resource, and therefore the incontestable requirement for community groups to be involved. Two issues are likely to arise: the language used should not be technical and partners should be prepared to outline all implications in terms comprehensible to non-specialists; it may be necessary to make adjustments to the proposed timescale: community organisations must be on board, but very often they have not the ability to go at the same speed as larger organisations and businesses - they must be enabled to go at their own pace: in the long run, this is in the overall interest of the community as a whole. Partnerships often founder on an appreciation of the differences in organisational cultures. People accustomed to working in bureaucracies may find frustrating the apparent preoccupation of community groups with consultative procedures; but such groups similarly may find it incomprehensible when someone within the authority applies for a modem and this results in a complete overhaul of the council's IT strategy. Time and understanding are necessary to make partnerships work.

Creativity and experimentation: the mouse as metaphor

Organisational culture will have a significant effect on the adoption and exploitation of IT. In some ways, community and voluntary agencies are more likely to be able to take advantage of the flexible, friendly systems and services which are becoming available, than are other kinds of organisation. Over the past 10 years or so, small unprofessionalised agencies have had to grapple with rigid, linear computer systems which require mandatory combinations of keystrokes and which force the user down paths with few or no options. Today's graphical interfaces are suited to a different kind of temperament - more creative, more flexible, less mechanistic. The mouse is the metaphor for this new kind of familiarity in computer use, and those who take to it may be those least comfortable with hierarchical and command-driven systems - those people and organisations who have no difficulty thinking laterally, reacting quickly and innovatively. Associated with this is a more temporary phenomenon, to do with the legitimacy of experimentation. In the management of many community and voluntary organisations, the notion of experimentation is difficult to countenance. The scarce resource of time and the relentless demands on primary services (especially in the field of community care) often limit activities to direct priorities only. But the character of current IT developments, regarding both the information highway and multimedia, tends to confound strategic approaches. In the short term, inclusion in this society calls for organisational cultures where the need to give time to exploring the potential and pertinence of systems and services is recognised and legitimised. It is possible, after all, to be strategic about experimentation, in terms of planned time, work programmes and so forth: and the technologies are now more about discovery than about tasks; more about communication than about repackaging.

Information cultures and information capability

The notion of the information society has seen the revival of some concepts, often associated with community librarianship in the 1970s - labels such as 'information poverty' and 'information have-nots'; and the slogan 'information is power'. To some extent, such language reflects sloppy thinking, but it also reflects legitimate concerns which need to be unpacked. It seems to me to be misleading to suggest that some people are information 'have-nots'. People have a greater or lesser need for information, just as they have greater or lesser awareness of its usefulness or applicability. To imply that information is of comparable importance and usefulness to everybody is questionable: there's an assumption that access to information is somehow crucial to our survival and development in this future society. This may appear valid for the networking classes. But for self help groups, for women's groups trying to confront drug and crime issues on a peripheral estate, for groups struggling to get health or transport or play facilities in a rural area, the notion that just getting information will somehow empower them is silly and may be offensive. As George Orwell put it, 'you'd have to be an intellectual to believe that: no ordinary person would be so stupid.' What's interesting is not so much the question of whether having information (or not having it) can affect the distribution of power in society - obviously it can, but not independently of other more dominant factors such as economic disadvantage, access to sources of political influence, and so on - but the nature of the information culture from which such language arises. This culture is characterised by being middle class, articulate and educated, and by being based in a kind of Victorian collectors' culture, where information is something almost tangible which you acquire and store and keep around you. It does not favour informal information or informal communication and it does not favour information sharing. We really have to recognise the decline of this culture if we are to exploit the new opportunities, and come to understand what kind of information culture is taking its place. My suspicion is that, not for the first time, campaigning organisations have something to teach us. The kinds of information use associated with Road Alert for example, or Friends of the Earth, are quite different to the traditional information culture; a culture where the characteristics of the communication are as important as the content. We need to consider in a different light the role of information in social and community contexts. For example, instead of speaking of 'information poverty' (which is a label we should avoid using), we should be referring to people's 'information capability' - their ability to acquire and use information for their own ends.(3) This capability may not be well-developed - that is the task - but it is latent and may be a key factor in the strength and pluralism of the information society. Information capability comprises more than just access to information (which is the element upon which the library and information professions have become fixated): it also comprises information awareness; and the skills to exploit information once it has been acquired. The information society is unlikely to be socially inclusive in any meaningful sense if the development of information capability is not addressed. 1 The observations in this paper are mine and do not necessarily represent the views of the Working Party. 2 Press enter: information technology in the community and voluntary sector: report of the IT and Communities Working Party. - London: Community Development Foundation, 1992. 3 Freedom of access to information / Kevin Harris. In: Informing communities. - Community Services Group of The Library Association, 1992.

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