This blog may seem a bit out of date, but with Get online week, and a diary chock full of meetings, I’ve not yet had time to blog about the launch of GOV.UK. The new website – a replacement for Directgov, but with an understated blue palette instead of orange – launched two weeks ago after spending a long time in both alpha and beta stages.
Some have said that, colour schemes aside, the website isn’t really that different from its predecessor, but I don’t agree – especially as the user has been put at the very heart of the site. It has been tested with a number of different groups – including UK online centres and their learners – to ensure that the needs of the least skilled and least confident internet users are taken into account.
The migration of government services online is never going to be universally popular, and it’s pretty clear that people without current skills and confidence will need face-to-face local support to gain them, as well as websites that are clutter-free, easy-to-use and work the way they should do.
But the government’s position of embracing the user is a massively positive one and it’s even more positive that the process is ongoing and always improving. It’s my job now to make sure the needs of the most vulnerable users are at the forefront when building services like these, and we all must see the value of grassroots community support so everyone, and I mean everyone, can use them.
Get online week might be over – but I’ve got one final tale to tell, and this time it’s my own! I was lucky enough to be able to attend a Get online week event myself on Friday, alongside Dido Harding, the Chief Executive of TalkTalk – who have been a fantastic partner throughout the campaign.
The event took place at the Oaktree Community Centre in Acton and I left the event feeling really inspired – not least because of a lady I had met while walking to the centre in the rain. She’d picked up a leaflet about the event from her local library, and was a bit lost so we ended up walking together. She’d been going to weekly sessions at her local library, but was struggling to remember what she had learnt from one week to the next, and her husband wouldn’t let her use his computer as he was worried she would mess up his files. She’d just moved to the area from Coventry, and was feeling quite lonely and so wanted to get online so she could email her friends back in Coventry, and her children who had gone off the university.
She was the first to admit that she had a long way to go to become a confident internet user, but she was willing to walk 3 miles in the pouring rain, so it was clear she’s got the determination – and the support is there from centres like the Oaktree Community Centre, and many others throughout the country.
When I left her I gave her my business card, and asked her to send me an email to let me know how she had got on once she felt confident. Although it might take a while, I know with the support she receives she’ll get to this stage, and so I hope I’ll receive an email from her sometime soon.
This is what campaigns like Get online week are really all about, and I’m sure there are similar tales of people all over the country who have taken the plunge this Get online week and made the decision to improve their skills. Thank you to all the centres who took part in Get online week, and to all the partners who gave their support. We couldn’t have done it without you.
Yesterday, Roger Darlington – a member of our board – visited another Get online week event in London. You can read on to see his thoughts, and you can find his blog here.
I used to travel a lot through the East End of London because I lived out in Leyton and then Leytonstone for a decade and my son was actually born in the London Hospital at Whitechapel. But, since I moved to north-west London almost three decades ago, I don’t visit the East End that much. Today though, I was over there to visit the Stroudley Walk post office.
Now, over the years, I’ve visited a lot of post offices because I used to be on the Board of Postwatch and then its successor Consumer Focus and I still chair the Post Offices Advisory Group of Consumer Focus. Sadly the location I viewed today is not a shiniest example of the best of the post office network as made plain by this customer comment.
So, what was I doing there? In my capacity as a non-executive Board member of the Online Centres Foundation, I wanted to visit a location involved in Get Online Week which runs from this Monday to this Friday and the OCF Head Office in Sheffield offered me Stroudley Walk post office as a participating location in the city where I live.
If the ambience of the Stroudley Walk post office is less than thrilling, the enthusiasm of the Get Online Week supporters that I met there totally made up for it. Sitting behind a table loaded with leaflets and a laptop were Julie Browne and Rujina Ali who gave me a warm welcome and explained the activities of Poplar HARCA (Housing & Regeneration Community Association) – an organisation covering some 8,500 properties – for which they work.
The Association has six community centres and runs five sessions a week to introduce local residents to the Internet. As well as a web site, they are on Facebook and Twitter and have a magazine called “HARCA Life”.
The Get Online Week venture in Stroudley Walk post office was a friendly affair which had coloured balloons floating over the literature-filled table and a box of sweets on the table. On the side, visitors could have their face painted or pick up leaflets on such health issues as bowel cancer.
The exercise did not simply involve engaging customers entering the premises to transact post office services; half a dozen Association volunteers and staff were out and about outside the post office and in local shops and doctors’ surgeries encouraging local citizens to take some literature or sign up for a course. Their enthusiasm was positively infectious. Well done, guys.
On the Get online week theme, here’s another blog – from our Communications Manager, Anna.
“On Wednesday, I went along to what was perhaps Sheffield’s flagship Get online week event – a big drop-in session supported by lots of partners and volunteers that took place at the Town Hall. The event was a great example of partnership working – the council and local UK online centre came together, and got lots of other partners on board to talk about their online services, and to support people who needed a bit of help to use them. There were Wii games and free tea and coffee – what more did you need?
“Unfortunately, I spent the morning not in the warm town hall but on the steps outside, armed with a bunch of leaflets, trying to encourage people to come inside and brush up their skills.
“I won’t lie – it wasn’t an easy job. I lost count of the number of times I was told “I’m too old”, “These computers, they’re not for me” or “I just don’t have time.”
“Breaking down the barriers wasn’t just hard – at times it was impossible unless I wanted to chase people down the street. At best I could hand them a leaflet and encourage them to think about it – and hope that in the end, some of them will do.
“There’s 8 million of these people in the UK that, for one reason or another, have resisted the draw to get online. And we might have to give them leaflets ten times, or twenty times, or more, before they make the first move to get online.
“But – when I did finally make it into the warmth, it was clear that for the people who did come along it was all worth it. They were sending emails, connecting with people on Facebook, booking tickets and checking train times. Seeing them get to grips with things really showed just how worthwhile campaigns like Get online week can be – and I hope some of the people I chatted to outside come to realise this too.”
As an organisation, we like to think we’re pretty good about getting out and about and talking to our learners – after all, most of what we do every day is about supporting these people to do more online.
And so a campaign like Get online week is just a great excuse for us to get out of the office and chat to some of the people the campaign has supported.
In the next couple of days, I thought I’d share some stories from the team who have been out and about during Get online week – and first up is our training manager, Aniela.
Aniela says: “It’s easy to get caught up in your day-to-day job, so it’s really nice to get out from behind your computer and sit behind a computer with someone else, and see things through their eyes. This week, I was lucky enough to visit Painted Fabrics, a sheltered housing scheme in Sheffield where Heeley Development Trust run a regular session. On the day I visited, seven ladies, all in their 70s or above, were chatting and learning how to do more online – the very essence of a Get online week event!
“I managed to sit down with Marilyn, who had been coming to the sessions for a while. Since starting, she’s learnt to do a number of things – including using eBay which she was loving.
“Although she was quite experienced, Marilyn needed some help. She’d bought her own Netbook two years ago, but when she finally felt confident to give the internet a go at home, and tried to log on a couple of weeks ago, the password wasn’t working.
“I use computers and the internet every day, but I was pretty lost when I tried to help Marilyn. We even tried to find some Youtube how-to guides, but I found them very confusing, so I dread to think what a beginner would think!
“The session finished before we got Marilyn’s computer sorted, but I’m determined not to let it beat me! I’m planning to take one of our resident techies back to help her in a couple of weeks and I’m hoping we can get her up and running soon!
“Speaking to Marilyn really demonstrated just what complicated things computers can be – whether you’re new to it, or you’re an old hand like me. Unfortunately, there’s not always an easy solution – you’ve just got to be prepared to persevere and ask for help, and hopefully you’ll get there in the end. Luckily for Marilyn – and for most of us I’d imagine – the benefits of technology outweigh the occasional problems, and so I’m confident she’ll keep on going and she’ll be surfing at home on her Netbook before long.”
Mid October may not be a traditional time for reflection and self-analysis, but in the run up to my sixth Get online week campaign (15 to 21 October), I find myself thinking about exactly how far we’ve come.
Part of this, of course, is prompted by the publication of our latest Annual Review, which showcases just what a year April 2011 – March 2012 was for us – full of change and new beginnings. If you read my blog regularly, you’ll know that last December we became a staff owned mutual running a social enterprise, which has had huge implications on what we do – and even on how we feel.
Before the very first Get online week was even a twinkle in the already twinkly eyes of former MP Derek Wyatt (a story for another time) the idea of being a self-operated, independent body was – at best – a pipe dream. (Or given my views on people vs pipes, perhaps I should say a ‘people’ dream).
The journey to becoming a mutual wasn’t an easy one. We had to imagine the kind of organisation we wanted to be, articulate that in a competitive bid, and then establish ourselves as an independent body with a new board to steer us, a new strategy and new funding streams and partners to work with – and this all had to happen at breakneck speed. But being a mutual has meant that we can be more responsive, more flexible, and more strategic about our work. The buck stops with us, and it means we work harder and smarter to achieve what we want for our customers, consumers and network (although I’d like to add that I think we worked pretty hard before mutualisation too!)
The highlights of what we’ve achieved so far as a mutual – and in the lead up to mutualisation – are too numerous to count. Our annual review shares a small number of them, as well as setting out our plans for the future as we diversify what we do, working in communities to inspire change through technology, and helping organisations and government prepare for the shift to digital – so everyone can take advantage of the huge benefits of technology. Please give it a glance.
Last year, Get online week supported c40,000 people to improve their skills. This year – our first under our own aegis – we hope to match (or beat) that figure. It may have been a rollercoaster year – but there’s still time for you to ride it with us for Get online week. If you want to visit a local event, get involved as a volunteer, or just help us spread the word, do get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll see you on the other side with all the juicy #GOLW12 details….
As most regular readers will probably know, I’m pretty passionate about the potential of technology to do more for people, and help people do more for themselves. I’m also passionate about its potential to do more for communities, too.
Technology can empower communities, bring them together and help them thrive. The problem is that hard-pressed local and community organisations often struggle to harness its power.
For many, it’s difficult to know where to start – what’s out there and how it could help. For others, it’s a matter of time. If you’re running round trying to get things done and make ends meet, then researching and experimenting with digital tools is simply not top of your to-do list. But digital tools can actually help community workers save time, manage their projects and even raise important funds. And there are people out there who are making work – and work hard – for their projects and clients.
At OCF we want to capture some of that experience, and make it easier for community organisations to use technology to do more of what they do best.
With that in mind we’re running a new Conference next month, which aims to inspire community organisations to adopt new digital tools. Digital evolution, local action is a one day Conference taking place on 27 November at the BT Centre in London.
The conference will be chaired by former Labour Schools Minister and Employment Minister, Lord Jim Knight (also our Chair at OCF). Delegates will get to take part in interactive workshops and hear from the experts about how technology can be used to deliver projects, improve services, build communities and organise local action. Speakers will include Minister for Civil Society Nick Hurd MP , Marcelle Speller founder of Localgiving.com, Dan Thompson – the creator of #riotcleanup and #WeWillGather, and Ken Banks, founder of kiwanja.net, which helps non-profit organisations in Africa and around the world make better use of technology.
I’m really excited about the conference and the opportunity to give local social innovators new tools to do their day-to-day work – and hopefully more confidence in their personal ability to make a difference. These are the people who are in the driving seat for social justice in Britain. If you’re one of them and feel you could make more of technology to make more of an impact, it would be great to have you join this conversation.
Find out more the Conference here or follow the latest news on #dela2012.
I’ll look forward to seeing you on the day.