International Political Economy and Development

Policies to increase ICT usage in developed countries

Posted in ICT Policies, ICTs for Development by DS on May 21, 2009

Originally posted at ICTlogy.

Some conversations with Ricard Faura — head of the Knowledge Society Service at the Catalan Government — about my recent research have triggered some questions that need being clarified.

The following lines are a very simplified approach on what I think should be the design of public policies to foster ICT usage in a place like Catalonia or Spain, though it is my guess that it can be extrapolated to most developed countries facing similar problems like Spain’s.

Barriers for adoption

In general — and again, being really simplistic with the analysis — there are three main issues identified as a barrier for ICT adoption in Spain and a third issue that, unlike developing countries, it is identified as not being a barrier:

  • Age (and some would add gender) is a barrier: younger generations are way more online than older ones, being dramatic in elder people
  • Skills present a barrier too, as people do not feel confident, or even threatened, by Information and Telecommunication Technologies
  • Indeed, most people not using ICTs also state that they find them useless. Thus, utility and attitude are also a dire barrier and the one with a strongest trend.
  • Last, and in general terms, infrastructures and affordability are not a barrier or, at least, they are not stated as being as important as other reasons for lack of usage.

Critique

I believe that the previous barriers can be summed up in just one single barrier: lack of utility of ICTs, with a stress on lack of utility on being online.

This lack of utility can be explained in two ways:

  • A real lack of utility, mainly due to lack of digital content and services that fits one’s purposes, be them personal or professional: for leisure, for activism, for work, for training en education, for health, etc.
  • A perceived lack of utility, mainly due to lack of e-awareness and not knowing the benefits (or a real measure of the costs) that ICTs can bring to one’s life. This lack of e-awareness, of course, can be accompanied by the lack of several digital skills, which create a vicious circle: less digital skills, less e-awareness; and so.

What about age? I believe that youngsters — besides the fact that they find ICTs not technologies but something that was always there since they were born — have already found ICTs useful: they absolutely fit their needs in matters of education (the Internet is full of stuff) and in matters of socialization (the “communication” part of ICTs), which are the two main “occupations” of people under 16.

Policies

So. We’ve got digitally illiterate people and people that cannot find in the Internet anything worth being connected. What to do from the government?

Concerning utility, my own research shows that pull strategies are the ones that work. It’s absolutely coherent, on the other hand, with trying the Internet to make sense for unconnected people. More hardware or software or broadband will just put stress on the citizen to use something for “nothing at all”. In my opinion, policies should be threefold:

  • A high commitment to put public services and the dialogue government-citizenry online, by means of e-Administration and e-Government
  • Help the private sector not to have an online presence, but to go beyond and use the Internet for their transactions, with the government (G2B, a part also of the e-Administration strategy) and with their customers (B2B and B2C)
  • Last, but not least, empower the citizenry to bring relevant content and debate online. Citizen organizations (political parties, NGOs, neighbourhood associations, patient associations, foundations, clubs, etc.) would be my pick as huge impact collectives which to begin with, as they’ll have manifest multiplier effects by pulling other citizens towards the use of ICTs.

Concerning skills, there three groups of evidences that are worth being remembered:

  • People with digital skills are more likely to be more productive and, hence, to earn higher wages. On the other hand, lack of digital skills is likely to reduce employability.
  • People with digital skills go more online and happen to meet more people, which improves both their social engagement (and self-esteem and so) and their professional opportunities.
  • Digital skills are, by far, acquired on an autodidact basis or, in the best cases, on a P2P basis (family, friends, colleagues). Formal training in digital skills is only partially present in schools and is rare past school age.

That said, and again in my opinion, policies should be threefold:

  • Urgently mainstream ICTs — in a very broad and intensive sense — in curricula and syllabuses. This mainstreaming should be based in two approaches: (1) training for trainers and (2) embedding ICT practices in the overall learning process (i.e. not just bound to the computing subject or classroom — though I’m neither saying students should forget about pencil and paper)
  • A proactive public strategy aimed to people out of the educational system to catch up with these skills, by means of telecenters and libraries (and other points of access), subsidised courses in computing academies, etc.
  • A joint strategy with the private sector to do alike in their in-company training programmes. The public sector could provide training for decision-takers to raise their e-awareness and even help with funding in-company digital skills programmes. But, the private sector should be committed enough, as the benefits are evident and would sooner or later positively impact the firm with higher productivity rates.

Summing up

I honestly think that pull policies to trigger demand (trigger, not contribute to the aggregate demand with direct expenditure) would, sooner or later, trigger to a demand for training in digital skills, which implicitly states in which order I’d be setting these policies.

These what-to-do-policies also, by construction, set aside the what-not-to-do-policies. If we keep in mind we’re talking about (digitally) developed countries and their characteristics, policies not to foster are mainly those aimed at subsidising hardware or connectivity in any way, or fostering the creation and expansion of infrastructures and carriers without anything to be carried on. Static and eminently informational public or corporate websites fully fit in this category; and also fits in this category the creation of content with no further purpose or strategy of usage behind.

Some bibliography

enter (2007). Inhibidores de uso de las TIC en la sociedad española. Madrid: Instituto de Empresa. Retrieved May 20, 2009 from http://www.enter.es/enter/mybox/cms//1379
Ficapal, P. & Torrent i Sellens, J. (2008). “Los Recursos Humanos en la Empresa Red”. In Torrent i Sellens, J. et al. La Empresa Red. Tecnologías de la Información y la Comunicación, Productividad y Competitividad, Capítulo 6, 287-350. Barcelona: Ariel.
Fundació Observatori per a la Societat de la Informació de Catalunya (2007). Pla de Màrqueting de la Societat de la Informació. Barcelona: FOBSIC. Retrieved May 20, 2009 from http://www.fobsic.net/opencms/export/sites/fobsic_site/ca/Documentos/Escletxa_Digital/Pla_de_Mxrqueting_-_versix_per_a_difusix.pdf
Peña-López, I. (2008). Estudiantes digitales, instituciones analógicas, profesores en extinción. Conference imparted in Barcelona, May 22th, 2008 at the bdigital Global Conference. Barcelona: ICTlogy. Retrieved May 13, 2008 from http://ictlogy.net/presentations/20080522_ismael_pena-lopez_estudiantes_digitales_instituciones_analogicas.pdf
Peña-López, I. (2009). Measuring digital development for policy-making: Models, stages, characteristics and causes. The role of the government. Seminar in the framework of the Internet, Law and Political science research seminar series. Barcelona, 14th May 2009. Barcelona: ICTlogy. Retrieved May 18, 2009 from http://ictlogy.net/presentations/20090514_ismael_pena-lopez_-_measuring_digital_development_role_of_government.pdf
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