Perils of procrastination

Student houses are notoriously messy. Pots and pans sit around covered in caked-on food, empty beer cans litter the kitchen, while the residents sit in front of day-time television in their dressing gowns.

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Student houses are notoriously messy. Pots and pans sit around covered in caked-on food, empty beer cans litter the kitchen, while the residents sit in front of day-time television in their dressing gowns.

But all of this changes the minute they have an essay to write. Faced with the prospect of penning 2,000 words on the French Revolution, house cleaning becomes priority number one. It is called procrastination.

It is a peculiar part of human nature that bite-sized, tangible tasks look like a drag until we are faced with abstract and intangible ones.

This might partly explain a discrepancy in the UK's digital capabilities. It is becoming increasingly clear that the UK's digital infrastructure is world class. But despite this, the uses, content, skills and outcomes worthy of this infrastructure are lagging behind.

Look at the evidence on hardware. Britain was first in the world to complete the roll-out of broadband and, as telecoms regulator Ofcom reported this month, the number of broadband internet users has recently overtaken the number of dial-up users.

Also, the number of pupils per computer in our schools is way below the EU average. Businesses are becoming more dependent on technology as well, and e-commerce booms in the UK.

For the technology industry, this all seems good news and worthy of congratulations. The UK is currently ranked the fifth most "e-ready" economy in the world. And yet productivity levels in the UK are still 25% lower than in the Netherlands, 8% lower than in Germany and 11% lower than in France - countries that are ranked 8th, 12th and 19th respectively for "e-readiness".

Meanwhile, schools watchdog Ofsted notes that "few schools as yet make significant use of applications that specifically require broadband".

Britain has adopted a supply-led approach to the digital age, rather than a demand-led one. The targets that were put in place around the turn of the millennium all focused on raising our game in the delivery of infrastructure.

All public services had to be online by 2005. There had to be internet access within walking distance for everybody by 2005. It was not stated that broadband roll-out should be complete by 2005, but pressure from the digital inclusion lobby ensured that the pace was stepped up.

These targets have served their purpose well. Some will be met, and others will not. But the benefit of targets is to create and maintain a sense of urgency. The question now is what that sense of urgency was in aid of. Why do we need all this kit?

What the UK has effectively done in the past five years is what students do when faced with an essay: start with the most measurable, bite-sized tasks and delay the harder one.

Looking beyond 2005, the challenge is to ask how we can build on this investment, to increase productivity. Uses, skills, content and outcomes are far harder things to manipulate or measure. But now that we have one of the best-equipped nations in the world, it is time to ask what we want to do with it. The house has been cleaned, now it is time to write the essay.

William Davies is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research. His report, Modernising with Purpose: A Manifesto for a Digital Britain, is available from

www.ippr.org

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