Introduction: Digital Inclusion Policies and Programs of Local Governments

Digital inclusion programs in the United States are local. So are the advocacy, outreach, strategies and resources for those programs. The United States does not have a plan for increasing digital equity on a federal level. Nor have we allocated ongoing funding. Therefore, digital inclusion leadership of local government is essential.

Local governments are also in the perfect position to pull together digital inclusion partners, create local plans, increase awareness and raise funding. Which local organizations should engage and which strategic solutions they should employ may vary down to the neighborhood level.

The field of digital inclusion is new enough that even practitioners are still uncertain of the definition. To help us all move forward, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) has published the following definitions of digital inclusion and digital equity:

Digital Inclusion refers to the activities necessary to ensure that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).  This includes 5 elements: (1) affordable, robust broadband Internet service; (2) Internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user; (3) access to digital literacy training; (4) quality technical support; and (5) applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation, and collaboration. Digital Inclusion must evolve as technology advances. Digital Inclusion requires intentional strategies and investments to reduce and eliminate historical, institutional, and structural barriers to access and use technology.

Digital Equity is a condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy and economy. Digital Equity is necessary for civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services.1

The first four activities in the NDIA definition of digital inclusion overlap with the four activities identified by Colin Rhinesmith in Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives:2

  1. Providing low-cost broadband
  2. Connecting digital literacy training with relevant content and services
  3. Making low-cost computers available
  4. Operating public access computing centers

When we launched the NDIA in the spring of 2015, we thought our affiliates would primarily be community-based organizations and libraries. And then local government entities began joining. And participating. We had thought of local government as an essential partner. Now we knew they are clearly in the action. We changed the description of NDIA, adding the word “towns” to our explanation of who we are:

We are leaders of local community organizations, public libraries, towns, and other institutions working hard to reduce digital disparities among our neighbors. NDIA is a unified voice for home broadband access, public broadband access, personal devices, and local technology training and support programs. We work collaboratively to craft, identify, and disseminate financial and operational resources for digital inclusion programs while serving as a bridge to policymakers and the general public.3

Local government elected officials or staff wrote all seven articles in this issue. This is a testament to the importance of digital inclusion to the missions of these cities. They realize they must increase digital access and skills because of the following:

  • Government services (at all levels) are moving online.
  • Civic participation occurs increasingly online.
  • More jobs have digital components, if only to apply for that position.
  • Overall participation and a chance at success in our society requires being online.

Allocation of valuable resources is no small decision. Each of the cities in this issue has a different strategy in its quest for digital equity. You will see some allocate resources directly toward access and skill programs. Others allocate resources to develop digital equity plans. All have staff dedicated, at least in part, to digital inclusion efforts.

In November 2016 we launched Digital Inclusion Trailblazers, a catalog of local, state, and national digital inclusion leadership. This is the first public inventory of local government initiatives promoting digital literacy and broadband access for underserved residents. NDIA and Mobile Citizen developed Digital Inclusion Trailblazers as an advocacy tool. It provides a handy database of examples and contacts for communities interested in taking similar steps themselves.

There are eight key indicators of local government digital inclusion leadership. The Trailblazers inventory features local governments which meet at least one. For each positive indicator, there’s a link to a web page with more information about the municipality’s efforts in that area. Just as importantly, the inventory provides a key local contact. All seven of the local governments highlighted in this issue are Trailblazers.

I was recently asked by a state broadband office about which states had model digital inclusion programs. Unfortunately, I cannot point to a state with a significant digital inclusion strategy. California has funding programs that support digital inclusion work. A few states have considered digital inclusion in infrastructure planning. However, I have high hopes that soon I will gather articles from state leaders for an issue focused on state digital inclusion strategies.

I am pleased to present to you articles from seven of our Digital Inclusion Trailblazers: Austin, Texas; Boston, Massachusetts; Kansas City, Missouri; Portland, Oregon; Raleigh, North Carolina; San Antonio, Texas; and San Francisco, California.

Notes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. “Definitions,” National Digital Inclusion Alliance, http://www.digitalinclusionalliance.org/definitions/.
  2. Colin Rhinesmith, Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives (Evanston, IL: The Benton Foundation, 2016), https://www.benton.org/inclusion-adoption-report.
  3. “Home,” National Digital Inclusion Alliance, http://www.digitalinclusionalliance.org.
Angela Siefer

About Angela Siefer

Angela Siefer is director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. She envisions a world in which all members of society have the skills and the resources to use the Internet for the betterment of themselves and their communities. Since 1997 Angela has worked on digital inclusion issues with local community organizations, the National Telecommunications Information Administration, state governments, and the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition. A portfolio of her written work is at angelasiefer.com.

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