Tomorrow, ND2012 – the 7th national digital conference – kicks off in London, and I’m really excited about meeting some of our great UK online centres who are attending, and catching up with some of our fantastic partners who are doing great work in the field of digital. I’ll blog later this week about what I learned from the conference, but I’ve had a quick glance at the programme and there’s a lot to look forward to. We’ve got a real vested interest in the digital by default agenda, so tomorrow’s Digital Public Services debate is something I will be listening to keenly! I’ll also be speaking on Day 2 as part of the Everybody Online plenary, so if you’re at the conference I’ll expect to see you there! For those not attending, my slides will be available on the blog and on Slideshare from Thursday so you won’t have to miss out. The conference is a great way to bring together partners from across the sectors, and every year I come away with fresh ideas, so I’m sure this year will be no different. If you’re attending, I’ll look forward to seeing you there!
I’ve blogged before about the importance of getting social housing tenants online, and it’s at the front of my mind at the moment as I’ve been working with a lot of providers to help them get their digital strategies in place. This week, I was asked by one of the senior management team at Bracknell Forest Homes whether the stick or the carrot was the best approach, which is nicely illustrated by Solihull Community Housing entering tenants into a draw to win £10,000 if they pay their rent by direct debit – you can have a look at the competition here.
In all honesty, I don’t think there’s an easy answer. Lots of people see the introduction of Universal Credit as a stick to coax people online, but I think it’s also a carrot for many people – if you’re claiming you can claim your benefits more quickly, get them paid to you all at once and have more control over your own money, which is a pretty big selling point. Universal Credit mimics the way you would get paid if (or when) you’re in work. I was foolish enough to offer a free day of my time to any Social Housing Provider who wanted my help. I’ve now run about 15 sessions with the senior management teams of different housing providers, and let’s just say I’ve learned a lot. Obviously I’ve been preaching to the converted somewhat in these 15 sessions, as they’ve all actually wanted my help and asked me along, but it’s been amazing to see how a relatively short session can have such an impact. Before the session organisations don’t know if they want a digital strategy, and one or two hours later it’s unanimous that they do. Or they don’t know where the digital strategy should sit within the organisation, and suddenly they know it’s cross-departmental and everyone should be involved. Even those who have felt really confused about how to get going have worked out the place to start, which is often all it takes. Universal Credit, and the direct payment of rent to tenants rather than providers, is a pretty big incentive for social housing providers to get a digital strategy. There’s a burning platform if ever I’ve seen one! But that doesn’t mean there won’t be some providers who will ignore the benefits going digital can provide to both them and the lives of their tenants. It’s been great to work with organisations who are taking steps, however small, to embrace the digital world and to share it with their tenants. For me, sticks and carrots aside, this is the most important thing. The sun in shining so I won’t go on any longer, but in the next couple of weeks I’ll share my ideas of what should be in a digital strategy – as it feels pretty consistent across the 15 organisations I’ve helped so far. And if there are any housing providers out there that want to chat more, please do get in touch.
Once again, it’s time for my quarterly comment on how quickly time has passed, marked by the publishing of the latest ONS statistics into Internet Access. So, here it goes – doesn’t time fly! The good news is that the number of offline people has decreased again in the first quarter of 2012, down by 1% to 8.12 million. Things are definitely moving in the right direction. I like to look on the bright side of life, but I think there might be some disappointment in the sector that the rate of movement seems to have slowed down, with the stats only down by 83,000 in the past quarter, compared to 229,000 for the last quarter of 2011. There are lots of reasons for this, but for me the main one is clear – and it’s a pretty straightforward one. It’s just getting more difficult to encourage people to get online. It makes sense really – the more people we get online, the further away those who are offline become.
One thing the ONS data doesn’t give us is more information on these 8.12 million people, who can be categorised in lots of different ways. For a start, we know that some of these 8.12 million people want to be online. Lots of the people we help in UK online centres probably fall in this category, as they’ve decided for one reason or another – grandchildren in Australia, wanting to check the football scores online or save a bit of money by using comparison sites – that there are benefits to being online.
And I know from talking to a lot of people about getting online that a lot of them are indifferent. They could be persuaded (and I can often be seen trying to persuade them!) but they need inspiring and supporting to discover the benefits of the internet. With these people it’s a bit about showing them to great things the internet can do, and a bit about giving them a push – which is what things like having to search and apply for a new job online, or in the future having to apply for benefits online, will hopefully do. And then of course there’s another group which is people who are pretty resistant to getting online, and have decided that the internet’s definitely not for them. And as much as I hate to admit it, there may come a time when we need to accept that despite our efforts we just can’t get this group online. (I’m not giving up yet though!) So although in this 8.12 million there are people that feel positive about getting online, they’re still amongst the most excluded in our society, which is why they aren’t online yet. They’re the easiest-to-reach of the hardest-to-reach, if you like. As we, and all of our centres all over the country know, getting these people online certainly isn’t easy, and it’s not going to get any easier.
If we think of closing this divide as a metaphor, we’d all love to think of it as a car. Just a little bit of momentum and we’re off – there’s just no stopping us! Unfortunately, I think it’s more like a marathon (or the London to Brighton bike ride I somehow seem to have signed up for!) The first few miles seem easy, but as you get further from the start line every movement seems like an effort, and it feels like you’ll never reach the cheering crowds at the end. In our marathon, at the moment it feels a bit like we’ve hit the wall and, despite our efforts, we’re not getting much further. But I’m really positive that with some perseverance, a few gritted teeth and a bit of determination, we’ll get to the finish line. It’s just a bit further away than we’d hoped.
It’s been a busy time here at UK online centres, and so apologies for not posting more regularly over the last few weeks. You’ll be pleased to know that there will be a lot to share over the next month or so, as we embark on some exciting new projects. I’ll also be attending and speaking at ND2012 at the end of May, and am looking forward to meeting and catching up with lots of like-minded people. ND2012 will also mark a year since I first started blogging – doesn’t time fly!
I wanted to blog quickly to mark the launch of Go ON UK, a brand new charity set up by Martha Lane Fox, which took place on 24 April. Unfortunately, I was still stateside so couldn’t make the launch, but our Chairman Jim Knight, board members Will Perrin and Roger Darlington and our very own Director of Operations Kevin McLean all attended, and were very impressed by the enthusiasm shared by the charity’s broad range of partners. Go ON UK’s mission is to bring the benefits of the internet to every organisation and every individual in the country, and they’ve got some pretty impressive founder partners in the form of Age UK, BBC, Big Lottery Fund, E.ON, Lloyds Banking Group, Post Office and TalkTalk, who will be helping them. They also have lots of other expert partners helping them, including Childnet, One Voice, e-Skills UK and us here at UK online centres, who will all be on the executive group.
I’d like to welcome new CEO Marketa Mach, who brings lots of great experience of working in the digital arena (including for Apple), and who I’m sure will do a great job heading up the charity. I’m sure there will be lots more to share about Go ON UK and how we’re working together in the future, but for now congratulations to all involved, and I’m looking forward to working with you!