For many who’ve been campaigning to get better broadband into the UK’s rural areas the Government’s Big Society policy agenda is a very welcome opportunity to really make a difference, to fix this problem once and for all.

With BD-UK’s programme under way and DEFRA announcing £20m to support rural community broadband things seem to be moving in the right direction – but there are some major challenges ahead.

There is a clear sense that politicians are not just espousing the big society principals, they really believe in it – just look to people like Rory Stewart, Peter Aldous and Jesse Norman, and of course Ed Vaizey.

The challenges, to my mind, lie elsewhere.

Generally, public servants have spent the last decade and more centralising – local government had become a delivery body for central government, spending money as they were told, micro-managed from above.

Localism means the direction of travel between local and central government is being put in reverse; the thinking should now be coming from local authorities in tune with their communities, and with the support of central government

This is very hard if you’ve not done it before

Whitehall civil servant’s natural belief is that they have the big picture.

Local government staff are quite naturally risk averse when confronted with new and difficult decisions which may affect the whole of their community.

It will take some time before Whitehall feels comfortable supporting rather than leading, and it will take equally long before local government feels comfortable sitting in the driving seat, guided by their communities.

In this climate, it is perhaps no surprise that the thinking  influencing some local broadband plans is drawing from the known, and appears to be taking those local authorities towards a traditional procurement exercise that will ensure only the biggest, most traditional businesses win,  and where community engagement is limited to little more than free marketing support.

Perhaps not surprising but it is disappointing given that the Big Society is a key strand of the Government’s policy agenda.

In the way that people like Jesse Norman introduced new thinking which led to a new wave of localism in politics, there is now a need to adopt some new thinking which will lead to localism in our digital society.

And this new thinking isn’t radical as in hippy – its radical as in different – its tried and tested in countries that have found the will to move on, and its has room in it for big companies, public bodies as well as communities – in a respectful partnership.

Successful local broadband strategies need to seek a balance:

  • Which permits the safety of an established major operator while underpinning the heart and soul of a community initiative
  • Which allows industrial scale investment while respecting the local stakeholders at the helm
  • Which attract the best national and international services while encouraging local services attuned to the community

There is no shortage of communities wanting to become stakeholders their digital future.

There are respected and experienced organisations that can provide the support that can focus that demand into action.

There are organisations willing to help raise funding to support the demand.

All that’s needed is for the processes already in motion to be encouraging of this demand rather the dismissive, and for the industry to try something a little radical.

The reward? A new contract with communities which delivers innovation, investment and opportunities. What’s not to like?

  1. cyberdoyle says:

    Funny you should post that today, when yet another county lucky enough to get a BDUK pilot went and blew it. What is the point in funding people to do pilots, aka big society, communities helping themselves etc. when all the county council does is hand the money over to the incumbent telco to do copper cabinets which won’t help the people the money was meant for? And its hardly innovative when the broadband will still be coming down the phone lines and isn’t even NGA.
    A few good pilots and then even the dopey councils would have seen what real broadband and internet access is all about.
    It was time for a change. But now we just get more of the same only a few near cabinets will go a bit faster, and more will be left on the wrong side of the digital divide.
    sad old digital britain.

  2. Somerset says:

    What does “The contractor will be expected to work with a county council approved supply chain to assist community groups to secure a connectivity upgrade for very rural areas,” mean?

    • adrian says:

      I have no idea is the honest answer. Unless the community have some say in who the tender winner is, then whatever it means is rather hollow.

    • adrian says:

      The BDUK score sheet makes it clear that without proper evidence of community engagement a bid will drop points, and with it done well its an area a bid can do well. Its not a process that can be fudged, and requires solid two-way dialogue so the bid properly reflects the communities needs, ambitions and capabilities. There are all sorts of organisations that can help – like the Rural Community Councils – but at some point it requires people to meet with each other. I’m looking at a process created by the Open University to facilitate creative thinking between people and technologists to see how it might be used to engage community representatives, local authorities and technology leaders in seeking a joined up strategy – if it works then it may form a useful starting place for local authorities seeking to create a dialogue with their communities and guide them in practical ways the can transform public services. I’ll keep you posted.

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