Yesterday I spent the day in Brussels with the newly created Digital Champions from the EU member states. The fantastic and energetic vice president and commissioner, Neelie Kroes has responsibility for the digital agenda in Europe, and we met a couple of years ago as I was embarking on the campaign, raceonline2012.
Neelie felt as though what we are doing in the UK was worth establishing across all of Europe and asked Barrosso to write out suggesting all countries follow our model and elect champions. I was delighted she could see that we were making progress in the UK and very keen to understand how other countries would embed the idea. As extra help, Cap Gemini have completed a (pro bono) and independent evaluation of our work and this provided a platform and framework for countries to think about the ideas relevant to them.
It was fantastic to walk into a room full of champions (even though I was half an hour late due to a hideous Belgian metro situation). There were lots of opportunities to share experience and hear other countries issues. I took away four big things.
Firstly, that there is real will at the top of the EU to make sure the digital agenda is part of the economic recovery and growth. There was an absolute shared sense that digital skills and infrastructure are not second tier issues but primary issues for every country. Whether it is ensuring we have the absolute best networks or the most widespread use of technology, all the champions saw this piece of the puzzle as vital for the future.
Second, it struck me how it is still important to be bold in ambition. Denmark had mandated the use of government services online - of course with a much smaller population but it meant the country was forced to help everyone learn skills however old or from whatever background and I believe we need those kinds of triggers in more countries. No one should ever be left behind but the status quo is not good enough.
Thirdly, it repeatedly hit me how early we are in the process of understanding how technology can impact the welfare state. Both Malta and Sweden talked about how they had used technology to help their older people monitor their own health. But I think they would readily admit that the potential for health services and social care to be improved using tech is only just beginning. I find this area fascinating and the biggest challenge as most governments are not set up to think about investing in tech to improve frontline services in the long term.
Lastly, I yet again came back to the simple recommendation that we need to focus on peer-to-peer training, help and knowledge sharing. We are creating an army of digital champions in the UK - in families, at work, in communities and this is what will make sure even the most hard to reach have the opportunity to learn and get help. Many other countries were doing the same from different angles - in libraries, in schools or in government, I believe widescale change is only possible if we focus on this army of people. At the meeting was the fabulous Chris Conder who is one such champ. She has relentlessly pursued rural broadband for her area and is lighting the fibre this July after effectively crowdsourcing the project with local people.
I am lucky enough to be the UK digital champion - the original but certainly not the best. With help from champions all over the UK and now the establishment of this European wide network I think we can go further faster to make sure Europe is at the forefront of digital development.
In fact I would argue it's not a debate, it's a necessity.