Exciting news: my new role in shaping Digital Democracy

Today I’m really pleased to be able to share with you news of an exciting new project I’ll be working on in 2014. I’ve been invited by the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Rt Hon John Bercow MP to sit on his new Commission on Digital Democracy. I’ll be working alongside Meg Hillier MP and Robert Halfon MP, both of whom I met yesterday and I know they are really committed to making the committee a success, and I can’t wait to get started.

And after a weekend where over a million people voted for X Factor winner Sam Bailey, and 400,000 crowned Andy Murray Sports Personality of the Year from the comfort of their own home, I think it’s the right time for the UK to take a real look at the role digital has to play in our national democracy. Now, I know politics is quite different to the X Factor final – less sequins for a start! –  but I think we can learn something from the way voting has shaped our entertainment, and apply it to something as vital as politics, giving people the opportunity to have an impact not just on their Christmas Number 1, but on how we decide on policies and shape our nation.

John Bercow said: “There is an enormous challenge out there not only for the House of Commons and Parliament as a whole but for all legislatures in the 21st century. That challenge is how we reconcile traditional concepts and institutions of representative democracy with the technological revolution which we have witnessed over the past decade or two which has created both a demand for and an opportunity to establish a digital democracy. Quietly, over past decades, a radically different world has emerged which in time will make the industrial revolution seem minor.”

“Indeed, there has not been one single overarching strategy for how we might move from where we are now to what a parliament in a digital democracy may look like, nor is there one role model from whom we can all take inspiration. (…) I am convinced that we need an innovation of our own to create such a map and a compass and to invite outside expertise in to assist us in this endeavour. That is why I am announcing today the creation of a Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy.” (You can read the full speech here)

Of course, as always, I’ll be using my place on the commission to make the voice of the digitally excluded heard and to ensure that the introduction of digital voting methods doesn’t exclude those who don’t have digital skills. But I’m also really interested in the link between being digitally disempowered, and feeling disempowered from the democratic processes. I’m sure that those who aren’t participating digitally are probably not voting, nor particularly interested in what government is doing, and so I’m interested to see whether we can engage them digitally and get them engaged with democracy – particularly at a local level where individuals can really have a huge impact.

On the other side of the coin, I know there are scores of young people who are very digitally skilled up, but while they might have voted for the X Factor winner this weekend, they’re not particularly interested in what Parliament does, or playing a part in democracy. I think digital could have a huge impact on getting them more engaged, and so I’m really looking forward to delving into this.

John Bercow MP said in his speech: “If we get this right, then the Speaker’s Commission would provide a blueprint for action covering, among other topics, ways to bring to the heart of our democracy the things that really matter to our citizens – how to put right grievances, how to turn law-making into something that really involves the people who will be affected – and not just a conversation between interest groups and political parties – and much more that we have yet to discover.” It’s a pretty big job, but one that is vital to shaping the democracy of our nation, empowering everyone and ensuring that everyone knows how they can have a say. I’m looking forward to getting stuck in!

I’ll keep you posted on our progress and how you can have a say.

Two great years and many more to come

December always seems to come around fast and this year is certainly no different. On the first of the month, here at Tinder Foundation we celebrated our 2nd birthday and what a whirlwind two years it’s been! We’ve achieved so much in such as short space of time and if I had to think of one word that sums up how we’ve changed, we’ve matured.

On Day One, when we started as Online Centres Foundation, we had one contract with the Skills Funding Agency and through the sheer dedication and hard work of everyone at the organisation – and of course in the UK online centres network – we now work with both the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Work and Pensions, and we’ve recently won a tender to work with NHS England, and a bid for English Language learning from the Department for Communities and Local Government – four big Government Departments in total. We’ve also got a decent commercial income stream, we’re working with the Corporate partners, and won a handful of smaller bids and contracts too. Diversification was the goal and we’ve done pretty well at this so far.

This blog is for me – and all of us – to reflect a bit about how much we’ve achieved, and to say a very big thank you to all of the UK online centres who work tirelessly in their communities to help anyone who walks through their door, no matter how little they know and no matter how nervous they are about learning more. And just to remind you, here are a few things we’ve got up to in the last two years:

Since 1st December 2011:

  • Together with the network, we have helped over 325,000 people to get online and learn basic online skills.

  • With great support from the Nominet Trust we’ve successfully set up the Community How To website and have had well over 20,000 unique users on the site.

  • We launched our Online Basics qualification and just under 2,000 people have completed their qualification already. With centres coming on board all the time there will be many more to come.

  • It’s hard to believe that there have been six fantastic local and national promotional campaigns

  • Learn My Way has gone from just six modules to a whopping 20 and counting. And there’s so much great work going on behind the scenes to make badging work and to co-create content, and to create links with Careers as well as Jobs.

  • We’ve launched the Digital Housing Hub and encouraged over 1,750 people to become members of it and discuss all things social housing and digital inclusion. And we won an award for it too.

  • The new UK online centres website was launched recently with a great new map showing all 5,000 centres and really good data sharing with the centres about their learners and what they’re doing on Learn My Way.

  • We’re working with the network to support over 25,000 volunteers.

  • We held our first Digital Evolution conference which was a great success – and yesterday we held our second, which might even have been better!  

  • And we’ve grown up and changed our name to Tinder Foundation.

Apologies for such a long, and not exhaustive, list – but I am proud. Each one of these actions has a very positive impact on so many people’s lives – driving a great service, or making sure the online courses grow with people’s needs, or helping our local partners train their volunteers all results in people gaining new essential 21st digital skills, many going on to get a job or have a better chance of getting a job, being healthier and happier and more involved in their local communities.

It’s been an amazing two years and I would like to say a massive well done to all the team at Tinder Foundation. And, thank you to all our partners – UK online centres locally – and all of the wonderful people who work with us on a national level.

Time to blow out the candles and look forward to many, many more great years to come.

Why mobile first might not be best for Universal Credit

I was interested to read this week’s article in ComputerWorldUK, on suggestions that the new Universal Credit system may be built “mobile first” due to the higher number of people accessing and claiming the new benefit through mobile devices (including phones and tablets) than predicted.

I’ve blogged plenty before on what mobile means for digital inclusion, and although I would definitely describe myself as a convert, I’d like to offer a word of warning to the Department for Work and Pensions.

Andy Nelson, the CIO of Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) who made this suggestion at the Public Sector ICT event earlier this week acknowledged that implementation was small scale, with around 4,000 claims made so far.

For me, the real test for Universal Credit will be when the roll-out goes wider. Those that are claiming currently are new claimants with no dependents, who don’t receive any additional benefits and who don’t own their own home. These are the less complex claimants, and they’re likely to be younger, less socially excluded and more skilled. This will mean that the 25% of people who are currently claiming using a mobile device will fall considerably once the more complex, less skilled claimants come on board.

Mobile devices are great in a lot of ways. They help me check my emails wherever I am, help keep things like Twitter fresh, and mean lots of our centres can take learning with Learn My Way out to people where they are in the community. But they’re not helping everyone. The Oxford Internet Survey (OxIS), 2013, says just 1.6% of smartphone users rely solely on this one device to get online, and Ofcom’s 2012 Consumer Market Report says 55% of those in socioeconomic group AB use a mobile phone to go online, this is just 33% for socioeconomic group DE. The same report shows that only 11% of households own a tablet, and this is likely be lower in more deprived households (in particular those claiming benefits) due to the high costs of buying them. OxIS is clear that internet access on a tablet or Smartphone is complementing not replacing going online using other devices – and they ask people if they download music, or update a social media status, with their phones or tablets, it’s not just a ‘do you use the internet’ question.

Having internet access at home is another issue that needs considering. The same Ofcom report shows only 63% of DE households have the internet at home, compared to 92% of AB households. For these people, public access to computers in UK online centres, libraries and jobcentres will be vital to them claiming Universal Credit, where they’ll often be relying on slightly less modern kit.

Andy Nelson said that the Department are working closely with Government Digital Service as they roll out Universal Credit more widely, and this gives me huge faith that the channels chosen will fit the target audience or audiences. GDS has done some great work in user testing with the least digitally skilled users, ensuring services work for those who lack not only digital skills, but other skills, including literacy and numeracy. This is the kind of work that will ensure that services really do get built with those who need them most in mind. And while this may be mobile for some (including me!), I think it will be a while before we see the death of the laptop altogether.