Fall-Winter 2002-2003

Benton Foundation Public Policy Update: Looking to the Future
by Norris Dickard

The Benton Foundation's third decade begins with a renewed commitment to accelerating digital opportunity for all people, and we are energized under the leadership of our new president, Andrea Taylor.

Those who work on the community technology front are well aware that individual, societal, and economic development benefit from the expanded use of information and communications technologies.  You know that in the 21st Century world of telecommunications, digital literacy is critical for success.

Looking to the future, the Benton Foundation intends to work with intermediary organizations and policymakers to help underserved communities realize the benefits and promise of digital technology.   In 2002, we've focused on building bridges across sectors and among decision makers. Despite proposed cutbacks for technology investments, we believe this is not a time to retrench.  We've partnered with key organizations to counteract the sentiment of many that the digital divide is somehow nearly bridged.  

A series of reports and papers on which we've worked have helped frame the national debate.  "Federal Retrenchment on the Digital Divide: Potential National Impact" was released early in 2002 as the first policy brief in a series exploring the national impact of possible federal retrenchment on digital divide policies. "Connecting Kids to Technology: Challenges and Opportunities," co-authored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Benton, is the latest Snapshot report from the KIDS COUNT series.  It examines the demographics of the digital divide and discusses current telecommunications trends and their relevance for children.  In summer 2002, a luncheon policy forum in the Hart Senate Office Building was held for national policymakers to discuss the important findings in this report. "Bringing a Nation Online: The Importance of Federal Leadership," a report by Benton and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, explains why community technology investments from the federal level are still critical.  It has been used extensively by the www.digitalempowerment.org campaign.

While Benton has focused on the domestic policy scene, we have also sought to expand our global impact.  On World Telecommunications Day, Benton and OneWorld, the online sustainable development and human rights network, announced the launch of the Digital Opportunity Channel, an online community focusing on the use of information and communications technologies (ICT) for sustainable development.   In November 2002, Benton is co-hosting the second Trans-Atlantic Teens and Technology Roundtable.  A group of funders, researchers, and policymakers from Europe and the United States is gathering in Switzerland to continue a dialogue on ways to best reach underserved youth.

Of course, we will continue our work on the Digital Divide Network, which we intend to improve through a revamping of the website, new content partnerships, and improved reporting on federal, state, and local public policies.

Finally, as the Benton Foundation learns more about the impact of technology on society, we'll seek to more actively educate and engage policymakers and stakeholders about how to promote 21st Century literacy for all—a central priority in the years ahead.

Norris E. Dickard is the Director of Public Policy at the Benton Foundation.  He was formerly a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education where he oversaw the initial development of the Community Technology Centers program and the America Connects Consortium.

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