Digital Housing Hub welcomes it’s thousandth member!

Last night we reached a major milestone – we registered our thousandth member on the Digital Housing Hub. The rate of new members registering on the site is gathering apace, and I like to think it isn’t just because the new Digital Deal Challenge Fund opportunity is on the site. Digital inclusion has never been a hotter topic.

On Monday the roll out of Universal Credit (UC) reaches a major milestone with Wigan, Warrington, Tameside and Oldham becoming the first areas to start UC ‘for real’. At the back end of last year we saw a new group of people coming into UK online centres as they were being urged to do their job searching online using DWP’s Universal Jobmatch. People phoning up to start claiming Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) are being told to go away and do it online, unless they can prove that they really really can’t do it online. And yesterday I was talking to housing providers who know that people affected by the “bedroom tax” who want to move will find it much easier to find a smaller property and apply for the move using online housing transfer tools. It’s never been more critical for social housing providers to prioritise their digital inclusion activity, and of course many of them are doing just that. I get great feedback daily that shows that the people working in the social housing sector who are on the hub find it is a useful place to ask each other questions and find useful resources to help them turn their priorities around digital inclusion into the practical next step.

I won’t go on for too long about how great the Digital Housing Hub is, but I will say that if you’re working in social housing and have any interest in digital inclusion, it’s worth taking a look to meet others who are in the same boat, share your expertise and ask any pressing questions. You can also find out more about the Digital Deal Challenge Fund while you’re there. Take a look here. 

Digital Britain 2 – why I don’t think it goes far enough

What with the long Easter weekend and the beginning of a new delivery year (plus the launch of the great Digital Deal funding opportunity) I feel like I’ve barely had the chance to look at Digital Britain 2, a report published by the National Audit Office at the end of March. But with the dust settling here, I thought I’d now share my thoughts with you – and I think the report is significantly underestimating the digital divide, and needs to look harder at support for those who are offline and who have low digital skills if we are to avoid creating a two-tier public services system.

Digital by default service delivery is a bold policy move, set to improve customer service and responsiveness while simultaneously saving money.  It has the potential to help millions of people – but only if done properly.  It has to be met and matched with equally bold support strategies if we are to avoid a ‘them and us’ approach to service delivery.

I don’t think the report is being bold enough in recognising both the potential issues and the potential benefits of online public service delivery.

>Digital by default service delivery should be seen as a great opportunity to move more people online, by providing them the motivation to improve their skills –  as well as to upskill the people that we call “the littles” – those that can do a bit online, but wouldn’t be confident enough to complete online transactions.

The report calls for GDS to increase behavioural research to see what prevents capable internet users from using online public services more, but I think a huge opportunity will be missed if we don’t carry this research out with less capable users too, so we can see what level of support and encouragement they will need to use online services. We already know there’s a world of difference between using Facebook on a smartphone and filling in a complex form online which could affect your benefits, and there needs to be support to help bridge this gap and ensure people aren’t left behind.

The Digital Britain 2 report estimated that there will be 4 million people who will need support to access services through the assisted digital programmes, but without a clear programme to help people to improve their digital skills, I’m sure the number will be much greater. With almost 16 million people in the UK lacking the skills to use computers and the internet – and many of these being the highest users of public services – we’re still underestimating the problem. Proxy users (like friends or family, or even UK online centres) can’t fill this gap, and so we (the people and the Government) need to make a real commitment to supporting them. These proxy users will just mask the issue of digital exclusion, putting extra burden on friends and family members without addressing the skills gap.

One of the most interesting – and perhaps worrying – statistics in the report is that 70% of people who are offline do not intend to go online in the next 12 months, but for the eternal optimist in me this surely means that online service delivery presents a huge opportunity to providing a motivation for them to go online. Three of the report’s five recommendations are about the support the government should provide to those who are offline, and how this should be publicised, but not one mentions the need to support these people to improve their skills. The nearest the report comes is in recognising the huge support provided by friends and family members in acting as proxy users, but filling in a form online for a friend or family member is very different from supporting them to become a confident internet user. By not addressing this skills gap between the capable, the not-so-capable and the offline groups means we will be doing exactly what the report warns again – consigning people with low or no digital skills to second rate public services. Only by supporting everyone to have the skills they need will we avoid there being a “them and us” approach to public service delivery.

Digital by default service delivery is a bold policy move. and so we need bold support strategies to support this. Without putting these in place, I fear that we will just be widening the digital divide.

New funding for social housing providers launches today

Social housing has rarely been out of the news in the last few weeks with the introduction this week of a host of new welfare reforms and the impending Universal Credit pilot. The sector can seem a bit beleaguered at times, but I regularly get the chance to see some fantastic, inspiring digital inclusion work by social housing providers all over the country, and today I’m delighted to announce we’re part of the newly launched cross Government £400,000 challenge fund to improve tenant’s online skills.

The Digital Deal – which has been jointly funded by the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Department for Communities and Local Government – will be managed by OCF and will support bids for innovative projects to improve the digital skills of social housing tenants.

I saw a great example of this just before Easter, when I took a long drive down the M1 to Barnet to see the work social housing provider Barnet Group is doing in the area. Barnet Group approached me quite a while ago when they heard I was offering free digital strategy workshops for social housing providers, as they knew they needed to do something, but weren’t quite sure where to start. The main driver for Barnet Group was to do something about digital inclusion for social justice reasons, and they decided to choose Burnt Oak as the place to kick off a pilot. Burnt Oak is one of the most deprived areas of Barnet – 46% of the population have low or no qualifications, life expectancy for a man is seven years lower than in the most prosperous part of the borough.

Barnet Group designed loveBurntOak – a project that would work with a number of partners including faith groups, libraries, the local Children’s Centre, Barnet College, JobCentrePlus, Barnet Council and many others – supporting people to improve their digital skills in the community, and also making innovative use of new technology, like tablets, to engage people who had previously been resistant to learning. It looks like @loveBurntOak is just the start, as the group has a vision to roll it out across other areas in Barnet co-ordinating activity and making a real impact on the lives of residents.

This and other inspiring stories that have come our way – and some stats, hints and tips – are on my latest slideshare presentation:

The challenge fund is open until June 3, and you can find out more on the Digital Housing Hub. Collaboration is key; and (in my personal opinion) please think about people and support – it’s not all about the technology!

Best of luck with your application.



Mobile = inclusive, but not inclusion

Last Thursday I spent a very interesting day at MediaTrust’s Go Mobile conference which has made me think about mobile technology and the impact it can have on digital inclusion.  Today we’ve launched a new look Learn My Way website – it’s mobile friendly and device neutral – optimising for mobile to include more people who want to learn using tablets, but still realising the majority will come via a computer.

The eReading Rooms pilot (details to be shared soon) has proven what we have known for quite some time – that mobile technology, and tablets in particular, can help take learning to the familiar places where people are, as well as helping people to learn in relevant places (like learning cooking in the kitchen or learning about gardening in an allotment).

One of my “lessons” on the panel on Thursday was: “Don’t get giddy over mobile”. Donald Clark’s blog is worth a read;  he lists the seven reasons that mobile could inhibit or even damage learning. While for adult learners – and in particular those who are resistant to technology – mobile technology can break down barriers but they’re not a catch-all solution. It’s all about context. I love reading my book on my smartphone, but for job applications – or even doing a weekly online food shop – tablets and phones are still inferior to a computer.

It’s all about balance and providing people with the chance to choose the technology that’s right for them, whatever they want to do online. We need to be ready for mobile, but not to become obsessed with it as the silver bullet for getting the nation online. So from today is inclusive to mobile learners, but it won’t by itself end the digital divide: we need other platforms in the mix too, and patient and commited people to inspire, guide and support those who are still excluded.