My American Adventures Part 2

Howdy y’all! I’m now well into my American Adventures, and suffice to say I’m having a great time meeting some fantastic people, and talking about the work UK online centres does. You all  know I’m a fan of stats and I’ve picked up some great ones so far – including that 100 million Americans don’t have home broadband, and 66 million Americans are digitally illiterate –  more than the total population of the UK – which show just how important the issue of digital skills is.

One of the most interesting meetings I’ve had so far was with Susan Hildreth, Director of the Institute of Museums and Library Services, who was appointed by President Obama himself. I ran a seminar with her and her colleagues about our model in the UK, and very excitingly we talked about how our Online basics course could be used across libraries all across the US to help get people online.

I’ve also been learning about Connect 2 Compete, a digital literacy training programme that promotes broadband and digital skills training to improve communities. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of parallels between them and the work we do in the UK. And the similarities don’t stop there. The US and UK have a lot in common in terms of the demographics of offline people, and the barriers they face to getting online, and so there is a lot of expertise we can share with them – which I’m really keen to do.

The importance of broadband access is something that’s at the top of their agenda, and although they know that matching skills to access is really important, there’s still more of a focus on pipes than people, a situation we’ve often been in in the UK. You’ll know I’m a bit advocate of digital skills, and I’m sure we can find a way to work with IMLS, Connect 2 Compete, and other American partners, so we can help promote and support digital inclusion over the pond as well as back at home.

I’ll aim to blog again the next couple of days about my trip to Facebook, and some other exciting meetings I’ve got planned in so do keep an eye out. Yesterday, I spoke at the University of Berkeley about the similarities (and differences) between digital skills in the US and the UK, so I’ll share these slides on Slideshare (where this whole story started!) as soon as I can.

My American Adventures: Part 1

I’ve been a bit quiet on this blog recently, but that’s only because there are big things in the pipeline here at UK online centres. Not only are we planning to move into a new office, and working with partners on lots of new and exciting projects (more coming soon), but next week I’ll be heading off to the USA to share some of my ideas and expertise with them, and hopefully to get lots of inspiration that I can bring back to the UK.

Firstly I’d like to say “hallelujah” to the magic of the internet and thank you to Greg Niemeyer who found me via SlideShare and is supporting my trip to California.

It’s a pretty jam-packed itinerary and I’ll be speaking at two digital symposiums in UC Berkeley, as well as presenting to some representatives from the US Library Service. Although I do a lot of speaking here in the UK, and I’m used to talking about the impacts the work we’ve done has had, it’s a real honour and privilege to be asked to hop across the pond and share my knowledge over there.

I’ll be in geek heaven, with my first trip to Silicon Valley, and meeting with Wikipedia, Techsoup, and SocialBrite. These are all people I’m really keen to learn from, and I’m sure they’ll have a lot of advice and inspiration that will help shape our digital strategies back in the UK. Despite the jetlag, a packed diary, and trying to fit in a birthday celebration, I’ll let you know how I’m getting on. I’ll try to make sure my Tweets aren’t too annoying and I’ll share things as I go.


Universal Credit – so what’s it all about?

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned Universal Credit and I promised to talk more about what it meant, and the huge impact it’s going to have on our benefits system.

For those of you that don’t know, the simple story is this – Universal Credit is a new benefit that will be introduced next year by the Department for Work and Pensions. It’s the biggest shake up of the benefits system ever, and will mean that six different benefits, provided by two different government departments and lots of local authorities will be brought together into one single benefit – the Universal Credit. There are some other changes too, like the fact that benefits will be paid to the household rather than the individual, and money will be paid monthly rather than a mixture of weekly, fortnightly and monthly payments so the claimant will need to develop strong skills in personal budgeting.

So far, so simple? Well, one of the most important things about the Universal Credit is that it will be a fully “digital by default” benefit, meaning people will have to claim for the benefit online. The benefit will first be rolled out in autumn 2013, and people will be gradually moved across to using it over four years.

DWP sees this as far more than just a benefit, and you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m right behind them on this. This is a change programme on a huge scale, and making sure that claimants have the right skills to access the Universal Credit will be fundamental to its success. With the programme hoping to make it more attractive for people to work, and to simplify our complicated benefits system, it’s vital that it’s successful.

But I’m not naive to think it will be easy. There needs to be a significant investment in skills – not just digital skills, but other skills such as financial literacy – which is something I’m pushing hard for. I know from visiting our centres, and talking to learners on a regular basis, that transacting online can be scary at times, and not a lot of people feel confident enough to do it,  so it’s important that the support is there for everyone who needs it.

The Jobcentre Plus Digital Champions initiative is a really great example of how this could work. I’ve talked about it before, but putting champions into Jobcentres, who are enthusiastic about the internet and can build up local partnerships, including with UK online centres, has been a fantastic way to get jobseekers online. This model can, and should, continue to work to support people as we move towards the introduction of Universal Credit.

As you might have noticed, I’m quite a positive person, so I can see a really exciting future for Universal Credit. And of course, if people get the support they need to use digital for benefits this will extend to the rest of their lives as well, meaning the introduction of Universal Credit will have a double benefit. There are bound to be teething problems with a change of this kind of scale, and my friends in Social Housing Providers are wary too. But I believe this will be a significant milestone towards the UK becoming a leading digital nation, and I’m looking forward to working on the frontline to help introduce it.