Helping change happen in small steps and the DWP Select Committee

It’s always great when you start to see your hard work pay off. I am particularly proud right now that following what feels like many years of lobbying, my team and I have helped influence the Department for Work and Pensions in their decision to consider the potential for developing basic skills identification tools as part of their offer for claimants. It’s a small step, but it’s great to see any improvements happening.

Let me explain how this came about.


Giving evidence at the committee. Image courtesy of

Following a meeting with Frank Field MP, Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, back in November 2015, I was invited to give evidence to the Committee on their inquiry into the future of Jobcentre Plus. In July 2016, I was on a great panel with Kathy Corcoran OBE, Chief Executive of the Cardinal Hulme Centre and Tom Hadley, Director of Policy at Recruitment and Employment Confederation. You can see a transcript of the session here or you can watch it on Parliament TV here. Here’s the important bit:

“Helen Milner: I do think there has to be something done about the initial conversation at the Jobcentre, or ongoing conversations at the Jobcentre. On the scale of the problem, we have centres in our network that are still saying that people are being sanctioned for not being able to use the internet weekly and are coming to them. These are centres that only support a couple of thousand people a year. So it is still a problem. Obviously those individuals will have complex needs but they perceive that the reason for sanctions is that they are not able to use the internet. Therefore I think it is really important that the questions advisers are asking people right now are better questions, not, “Have you got the internet at home?”, not, “Do you know how to use the internet?” but, “Are you confident to use the internet, to use Universal Jobmatch, by yourself? Do you think you will be able to do this several times a week by yourself?” The people who are really falling foul that we are seeing are those who would say no, no and no to those questions but might say yes to, “Do you have the internet on your phone?” for example.”

I, and others on the panel, were then asked: “Could you write six questions, fairly short, that might guide the Committee to say that this would be an improved means of identifying people’s capability and where the risks might lie?” I submitted these to the Committee and they included a recommendation in their final report published in November 2016 which stated:

“Jobcentre Plus should include a digital skills assessment in the Claimant Commitment interview which goes beyond simply asking if a claimant has access to the internet or a computer.

This should draw on the good practice examples of digital skills assessments that are used by specialist support centres. Having poor IT skills should, for example, be grounds for claimants to be offered longer meetings with their work coaches.”

I was really pleased to see this recommendation as it is something which I passionately believe would make a real difference to the lives of job seekers up and down the country. Last year, the Online Centres network supported 89,000 jobseekers to improve their basic digital skills. Not only that, they helped them to gain confidence and self-esteem and supported them to change their behaviour and prepare for a return to the job market.

A couple of weeks ago, the Government response to the Committee’s report was published and I was over the moon when I saw a section on the digital skills assessment, taken almost directly from the DWP Select Committee’s report: Digital skills assessment Jobcentre Plus should include a digital skills assessment in the Claimant Commitment interview which goes beyond simply asking if a claimant has access to the internet or computer. This should draw on the good practice examples of digital skills assessments that are used by specialist support centres. Having poor IT skills should for example be grounds for claimants to be offered longer meetings with their work coaches.”

It’s great to finally see that the needs of those who are digitally excluded are being taken seriously and that the government is considering ways in which they can support them right at the beginning of their job search journey.

For me, this really demonstrates the impact that we can have if we pull together and influence about the issues which we feel most passionate about. Ensuring that jobseekers get fair and intelligent assessment and support during what is already a difficult time in their life is of paramount importance. Gaining basic digital skills so they interact with online Government job seeking services is also essential so everyone can thrive in our digital society.

“If we wish modern democracy to flourish, it is imperative we respond”


Today the Government published the long awaited digital strategy, as a Government Transformation Strategy.

There’s some good stuff in here about breaking down silos and making sure Government services are integrated, and a brave introduction from Ben Gummer admitting that Government isn’t responsive:

“To govern is to serve. Our purpose is to maintain the security, safety and prosperity of the nation and to deliver what we have promised the people who elect us.

“Yet it is too often the case that citizens feel that they live at the convenience of the state: that the government acts not as servant but as master. The result is a perception that the country works for the people who govern, not those whom the government is tasked to serve. Whether it is a lack of belief in the capacity of government to deliver the pledges it makes at election time, or the frustrations thrown in the way of people every day – from filling in a form to trying to talk to someone on the phone – government seems less and less capable of doing what people want.

“The result of that disenchantment is plain to see. Here in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the democratic world, people are expressing their wish for a more responsive state at the ballot box. It is a call that demands a reply; indeed, if we wish modern democracy to flourish, it is imperative we respond.

“This is no easy task. Government is more complex and wide-reaching than ever before. There is no company on earth – even the largest of multinationals – which comes close to having to co-ordinate the array of essential services and functions for millions of people that a modern government provides. Equally our duty is to serve everyone regardless of ability, age, gender, opinion or the places in which they choose to live. For these reasons and because bureaucracies are by their natures monopoly providers, government has been slow to use the transformative potential of digital technology to change the way it does business.”

While the Strategy presents a vision of a more joined-up Government taking forward transformation, it is disappointing that there appears to be a lack of joined-up leadership when it comes to tackling digital skills and digital inclusion. The Government Digital Service currently has responsibility for Assisted Digital, whilst the Department for Culture, Media and Skills has a relatively new responsibility for digital inclusion. Maybe these two silos could work closer together. The bold vision that has been set out for change ‘at pace and scale‘ risks being derailed unless there is action to address the needs of the 12.6 million without digital skills at a similar pace and scale. We know that the DCMS-led Digital Economy Bill is set to put an entitlement in place for free basic digital skills training for the people who need them. That’s great, but it’s not mentioned in this Strategy nor is there a plan for implementing it.

The rollout of Universal Credit is a good example of where this joined-up policy and leadership around digital inclusion and skills has become urgent. Last year, our Online Centres Network supported 65,000 jobseekers to gain digital skills. This support is provided because citizens need it. Some of the digital skills projects we run are funded by Government, but not by DWP. The Transformation Strategy states that the rollout of Universal Credit depends on “much stronger local partnerships to support vulnerable claimants, who are probably using other public services at the same time“. This is true, but there must not be an expectation that community organisations can support benefit claimants without a joined up plan to making sure this happens.

The small section on digital inclusion in the Government Transformation Strategy reads:

“Developments in the private sector may highlight opportunities for government, but some of these do not translate directly into public service provision. For example, private sector companies can choose to target certain customers and exclude others. Public service providers, on the whole, cannot.

“Many sectors have been disrupted by new companies making the best use of digital technology, but it is not a given that similar benefits will be realised by government automatically. It is not possible to disintermediate critical services like benefits and courts, where people depend on public services and have no choice about whether to use them. Services must work for the whole of society – not just the 77% of people who have basic digital skills, but for the 12.6 million adults who don’t. This is particularly important as financial exclusion and digital exclusion often go hand in hand. People who are the least online are often heavier users of public services, highlighting the need to design services to include them. Nearly one in four people in the UK will be over 65 by 2040.

“A significant proportion of the adult population may never attain the digital skills to use online services without support, because of disabilities or lack of basic literacy skills.”

I’m on record previously, arguing against that last point. At Good Things we’re helping people who are over 90 years of age learn to use the internet independently and many people who have disabilities use the internet confidently. There’s no numbers here of course, so it all really depends what ‘a signification proportion‘ means to Government – if that means 2% or 3% of the adult population then we’re not arguing. If that means 10% then we are.

In Ben Gummer’s introduction he says:

“The imperative is to change, therefore – and to do so at pace and at scale. This is the meaning of transformation. It is in essence a change of working, of culture and of disposition – changes that are made possible by digital technology. That technology is not change itself; it enables the change that is so transformative.”

Changing lives at scale and using technology to enable transformative change on people’s lives is what we’re driven by at Good Things Foundation as many of our 2 million people we’ve supported in the past six years told us last week:  “It’s not about computers, it’s about people … 2 million people”.

We hope that there will be a plan of action for how the Government will support the 12.6 million people without digital skills, rather than an acceptance that those who aren’t online now will never be. Its Transformation Strategy – and modern democracy – depends on it.

Join the conversation on twitter with #GTS17


“It’s not about computers, it’s about people… 2 million people”

In my job as Chief Executive of Good Things Foundation, I spend a lot of time doing the normal CEO stuff. But the best bit of my job is meeting people who have improved their lives through digital. I was delighted when we hit 2 million people reached through our work with the Online Centres Network. To celebrate, yesterday, we hosted the 2 Millionth Learner Awards at the BT Tower in London and myself and everyone else in attendance was reminded exactly why we do what we do.

To put it simply it was a very special day and one that we’ll all remember for a very long time.


The magnificent fourteen

Every one of the winners and runners-up deserved this recognition. From, Jenny Bayliss, who used her new digital skills to build her confidence and find work, to Marita Sherwood who not only used the internet to research and push for a diagnosis of Fibromyalgia, she also uses it to research her son’s ADHD and found it an invaluable source of information when her eldest daughter Chance – who was also at the ceremony – was diagnosed with cancer.

Watch Learning for My Business winner Dawn’s video.

Bob Dunkerley, one of the most upbeat people I’ve ever met, used the internet to research strokes after he suffered one himself at one of his computer classes. And Paul Blackburn, who has difficulties with his speech and mobility following a car accident some years ago, has built up his skills and confidence to become one of the most popular IT tutors at his centre.

Watch Inspirational Learner finalist Tasleem Akhtar.

I will never forget the inspirational Olwyn Popplewell, who completely turned his life around, going from sleeping rough in the park to a job with Amazon and a flat of his very own. His speech at the end of the ceremony will stick with me for a long time.

“I can’t believe that I’m here receiving this award,” he said. “I mean, a year and a half ago, I was sleeping rough. I had no where. My family had started to give up on me. But then they gave me a bit of tough love and told me that I had to sort myself out. I went to Evolve and got the support I needed and that was exactly what I did. I turned the negative into positives. Things were hard. Really hard at times. Sometimes, dark places.

“With the support of Crisis, Evolve Housing, the Council, and Good Things Foundation, I’ve got to where I am now. I’ve got a bank account and actually know what a computer is.

“I accept this on behalf of everybody. All homeless people. All people trying to make themselves better.”

Watch Inspirational Learner winner Olwyn Popplewell.

It was wonderful. One big part of that speech that stood out for me was the part where he thanked Evolve Housing. The centres in our network are the ones who reach these people. Who work with them every day and convince them to keep learning when they feel like giving up. I think that’s amazing. We keep saying that we’ve reached 2 million learners, and that is a really big ‘we’. It’s the Good Things Foundation team and the 5,000+ hyperlocal partners in the network who work so hard and make those good things happen. Thank you so much for being awesome.

What was so special for me about yesterday was not just the depth of achievement we saw, but the breadth. I think we often forget how much we do with so many great national partners – such as DfE, Lloyds, Talk Talk, BT, MIND, DCMS, and Google – and locally within the Online Centres Network and it was amazing to bring it all together on the stage.

We saw learners from English My Way, NHS Widening Digital Participation, Future Digital Inclusion, Reboot UK, beneficiaries of our Digital Champion training and our work with small businesses. We saw that the hard work is working. It’s helping people and it’s doing good through digital.

It was a privilege to meet so many of our finalists in person after hearing their stories during the judging process.

If you want to read more about them, please do head across to the dedicated page on our website. I promise you won’t be disappointed. You’ll be inspired. You might even shed a tear. You’ll definitely crack a smile.

These people are 14 in 2 million and I hope they now know just how special they are.