A #UKDigitalStrategy for Everyone

As someone who has been campaigning for digital inclusion for more than 15 years, a Government Digital Strategy which starts with an ambition to “close the divide – to ensure that everyone is able to access and use the digital services that could help them manage their lives, progress at work, improve their health and wellbeing, and connect to friends and family” bodes well.

I have long argued that we need to be bolder and more ambitious if we are to become a truly digital nation and digital economy, outstripping the likes of Singapore, Finland, Sweden and Norway – and critically, if we are to create a fairer and more inclusive society by giving everyone the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of digital technology.

So, does the detail of the Strategy match up to the ambition?

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Karen Bradley MP at the launch this morning

 

At the launch of the Digital Strategy this morning, I was heartened to hear Karen Bradley MP, Secretary of State for Culture Media & Sport, commit to digital skills and digital inclusion as one of the seven central tenets of the Strategy.

The plan for digital skills and inclusion focuses on three themes:

  • Digital capability for all
  • Digital skills for the digital economy
  • Working together

In summary:

  1. Digital Capability for All

Government will:

  • Undertake a feasibility study on viability of using outcome commissioning frameworks such as Social Impact Bonds or payment by results, to tackle digital exclusion
  • Develop the role of libraries as ‘go to’ providers of digital access in partnership with Good Things Foundation and other national partners
  • Use the Council for Digital Inclusion to increase collaboration
  • Invest £1.1m through NHS on projects to support digital inclusion.
  1. Digital Skills for digital economy.

Government will:

  • Continue to invest in CPD for teachers
  • Support Raspberry Pi and the National Citizen Service to pilot inclusion of digital skills and careers in NCS programmes
  • Embed digital skills in technical education for young people
  • Implement a new entitlement to free digital skills training, as part of the publicly-funded adult education offer, ensuring a commitment to lifelong learning of digital skills
  • Fund Ada, the National College for Digital Skills, to develop an online learning platform to help develop coding skills
  • Develop a common digital skills language to help industry articulate the digital skills they are seeking in a widely understood way
  • Develop the Tech Talent Charter to ensure a more diverse tech workforce
  • Develop a Cyber Security Skills Strategy.
  1. Working together: a more collaborative, coordinated and targeted approach to digital skills

Government will:

  • Create a Digital Skills Partnership to examine options for improving the coherence of digital skills provision eg. by setting ambitions for increasing the types of training on offer and agreeing how it can be targeted where it is needed most.

Across other areas of the Strategy, I’m pleased to see that the government is committed to encouraging innovation in digital for social good, and investing in better digital skills for businesses.

Recognition of the cross-sector partnerships, which are so essential to the digital inclusion sector, is welcomed, including the significant new pledges by businesses such as Lloyds Banking Group – which has pledged to train 2,500,000 individuals, SMES and charities in digital skills – and Google – which will launch a Summer of Skills programme in coastal towns alongside its existing digital skills programme – with whom we’re already working to support digitally excluded people.

This is a comprehensive basket of measures which goes further than any other Digital Strategy in recent years in tackling digital exclusion and lack of digital skills. I welcome the bold ambition, and it feels like we’re at the tipping point of committing to a 100% digitally included nation.

As a member of the Council of Digital Inclusion, there are a few points which I’ll be picking up over the coming weeks:

  • Firstly, don’t forget the important role of the third sector in becoming a digital nation. Libraries are vital places for digital support, and commitments from the private sector are essential, but there are thousands of community and VCS organisations providing support for digital skills – often with no public funding – without whom this country cannot achieve its digital ambitions.
  • Ensure there is flexibility in the application of the universal entitlement to free digital skills for adults to include both those who want a qualification, and those who want to gain basic digital skills but don’t necessarily need a qualification, and also to make sure we get some innovation into the sector.
  • Embed digital skills in the work of Jobcentres, so that jobseekers have a much clearer route to gaining digital skills and applying for Universal Credit. This could be a key focus for the new Digital Skills Partnership, which will play a crucial role in helping people to access digitally-focused jobs at a local level. I spoke about this at the DWP Select Committee late last year.
  • On looking at new financing models for tackling digital exclusion, I’ve talked to a number of experts about Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) for digital inclusion, who have advised that SIBs may well achieve the same outcomes as alternative finance models, but for more money. I look forward discussing this issue with Government colleagues.

Social mobility is an underlying theme throughout the Strategy and it is clear that the driver is a digital economy which is both ‘stronger and fairer.’ Amen to that.

I’m confident that the Digital Strategy marks the beginning of a new, more energised, and cohesive framework to close the digital divide, putting digital skills on an equal footing to English and Maths as an essential skill.

I look forward to Good Things Foundation playing our part to make this happen.

Dementia, digital, and doing things differently

At Tinder Foundation, it’s our job to make good things happen through digital technology – and to make them happen for the hardest to reach, most isolated and excluded audiences. That includes the 850,000 or so people in the UK with dementia – and their carers.

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Godfrey, 68, was knocked sideways by his Alzhiemer’s diagnosis. He describes the disease as like  ‘living life in slow motion’. He stopped socialising, and shut himself away. One day, one of our UK online centre research partners (Age UK South Tyneside) visited his care home, and were showing some YouTube videos of old music performances – including Frank Sinatra. He went over to see what was happening.

Gradually Godfrey learned how to use a tablet. He needed a lot of help – a few simple icons to press for each activity he wanted to do – and different smells to help him recall the processes for each one.

Now Godfrey can Skype his son or daughter with just a touch of a button. He can look up his favourite musicians, and find new music. He’s become a fan of Seasick Steve, and his Grandson in Australia thinks he’s ‘cool’. He’s ordering his prescriptions online now, and he’s found out more about Alzheimer’s disease – so he feels more in control. He’s also joined some specialist groups so he’s getting out and about more.

In Godfrey’s own words, “You don’t realise what you can do until you try it out and it has really helped me stop feeling sorry for myself, snap out of my depression and start looking forward to things again.”

I believe digital skills really can help everyone and anyone live better, more fulfilling lives. And at Tinder Foundation we’ve had a look in greater depth at the role of digital skills and community-based support in improving the health and wellbeing of families affected by dementia.

Today, we’re launching a new research report – Dementia and Digital: Using technology to improve health and wellbeing, that begins to track the impact of technology on both people like Godfrey who have dementia, and their carers. It also scopes out the challenges and barriers to engagement and delivery, and what really works to make technology work well for these audiences.

This small, in-depth research follows on from our three year programme with NHS England to widen participation in digital health. Our aim has always been to reduce health inequalities – recognising the huge crossover between those who are digitally excluded and those at risk of poor health.

It is important to note that carers deserve as much of our time and support as the people they love and care for, and have equal prominence in our report. With so much on their plates already, they were often reluctant to add digital skills to their to-do lists, or to facilitate the learning of those they cared for. Once engaged, though, carers have found digital technology a lifeline. It is a way to create space in their lives for themselves, accessing support, saving time on everyday tasks, and helping the people they care for find both coping strategies and memories.

Ken Brown looks after wife Val, who has vascular dementia. As her appetite has faded, he’s been able to use the internet to research if this was part of her illness, find reassurance and new recipes and tactics to help her start eating more. For Ken, the internet has just made life that bit easier. “It means I’ve got somewhere to go, rather than sitting and thinking ‘what do I do now?’”

Digital doesn’t solve any problems all by itself. But it can help us do things differently, and in doing so make a difference to health, wellbeing and quality of life. We’re looking forward to continuing to work with the NHS, with frontline health and care professionals, and with organisations that support people with memory loss and their carers, to ensure these benefits can be realised as widely as possible.

The full Dementia and Digital report can be found on our website. I do hope you enjoy reading it. If you can help us expand our work and take these findings forwards, please do get in touch – hello@tinderfoundation.org.

 

Miles together

At the end of August I spied the Australian Digital Inclusion Index – a new report highlighting the extent of the digital skills gap in Australia and setting down a benchmark to measure future action. I found it particularly interesting as we’ve just started working with an Australian organisation called Leep – and their CEO, Cecily Michaels, is coming to speak at our conference in November.

Helen and Cecily

Me and Cecily at Harbour Bridge, Sydney

 

As I read the Index, although we’re about 9,500 miles apart, I couldn’t help but feel like there are a lot of similarities between our two countries when it comes to digital exclusion – and here’s why.

In the UK there are 12.6 million people who lack basic digital skills; in Australia the key barrier for some people to getting online and maximising the benefits that doing so can bring is digital ability. It’s clear to me that there is a digital divide in both of our countries and it’s important for organisations – like us and like Leep – to make sure we’re bringing digital skills to those who need it most.

The UK online centres network supports several different groups, from jobseekers to homeless people to older people, and one group that we focus on in particular is disabled people. There are 5.9 million people in the UK who have never used the internet before, and of those 3.3 million are disabled. In Australia the stats are similar: the report states: “People with disability have a low level of digital inclusion (44.4, or 10.1 points below the national average). However, nationally, their inclusion has improved steadily (by 2.6 points since 2014), outpacing the national average increase (1.8 points).”

Leep and Tinder Foundation are now working on a project together in Western Sydney, called the “Leep in Network” – a movement for digital inclusion and people with disability. The aim is to support people with disabilities to develop the basic digital skills needed to participate in society and experience all the benefits that being online can bring. Anyone can join the network: organisations, businesses and councils who are offering services to increase digital inclusion for people with disability, such as learning opportunities, access to free WiFi or computers.

Partners will feature on the network’s free online searchable database – created by us here in the UK – so that people with a disability in Western Sydney can find an opportunity that suits them to develop their basic digital skills. We’ll also be keeping partners up-to-date with newsletters and resources to support them with their digital inclusion programmes.

We will be sharing and tweeting the new tools very soon, so watch out for those, especially if you’re working in or interested in Western Sydney.

It’s all about teamwork

I couldn’t be happier that we’re working with Leep to deliver this project, and hopefully this is just the beginning of working together. We may be 9,500 miles apart but we’re working very closely together.

As an organisation, Tinder Foundation wants a world where everyone can benefit from digital – not just people in the UK. We want to take the digital inclusion message far and wide and we want to reach out to those who need our help.

I really can’t wait for Cecily to share our partnership journey at the conference later this year – make sure you don’t miss out on that one. And in the meantime, please do take a look at the Australian Digital Inclusion Index. It’s a very interesting read and proves that digital exclusion isn’t a nationwide problem, it’s worldwide – and there’s work to be done.

Digital health skills: Reducing inequalities, improving society

Today I’ll be at the House of Lords, launching our final report on the NHS Widening Digital Participation in Health programme.

Over the last three years of the programme, our aim has been to help people improve their digital skills, learn more about digital health, and improve their own health and wellbeing as a result. We have targeted those with least digital experience and most health needs in the heart of their communities.

With all of the challenges we currently face as a society, and with all of the pressures on the NHS, giving people digital health skills may seem like it’s not that much of a priority.

I’ll try and explain why it is.

There are 12.6 million people in the UK who don’t have basic digital skills and these people are those who are most likely to be suffering from poor health. They are also those most likely to be further disadvantaged by age, education, income, disability, or unemployment.

The fact is that there is a huge crossover between those who are digitally excluded, those who are socially excluded, and those at risk of poor health. The Widening Digital Participation programme aimed to see how action on one front could influence the others.

Ron

Ron Dale from Inspire Communities

Ron first went into Inspire Communities – a UK online centre in Hull and one of our pathfinder centres for this programme – because he was about to be sanctioned by Jobcentre Plus for not meeting his job search commitments. Ron was homeless, had a gambling habit, as well as serious mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. He was living in a tent on the motorway, on the occasional Pot Noodle and coffee. He was often hungry and cold, and his physical and mental health were going downhill.

Part of the problem was that Ron’s relationship with his GP surgery had deteriorated, and he refused to go. With the help of Inspire Communities, he was able to look at NHS Choices for advice on managing his symptoms, and to find a new GP. He was able to register and make an appointment online without having to run the gauntlet of travel, receptionists, and other patients.

Plugging him back into the healthcare system was key in helping to connect him to the wider support he needed – and digital was key in doing this. Now he’s found new housing, taking an active role in his own healthcare, meeting his Jobcentre Plus obligations and dealing with his gambling addiction.

Digital matters. Digital health matters.

And Ron’s story isn’t just a one off. Throughout the programme, we’ve found that giving people the digital health skills they need means they’re empowered to take control of their health, improving the ongoing management of chronic health conditions, and helping them to interact better with health and social care services.

We’ve also seen how digital inclusion can improve the social determinants of health – with better digital skills improving prospects for employment, income generation, educational achievement, and social connections. 52% of participants said they felt less lonely or isolated, and 62% stated that they felt happier as a result of more social contact. More than half said they have since have gone on to use the internet to improve their mental health and wellbeing.

On top of this, the programme has also shown that improving digital health skills has the power to reduce the pressure on frontline NHS services. By helping people to move non-urgent medical queries from face-to-face and emergency channels to online ones, we found we could potentially save the NHS an estimated £6 million a year, representing a £6 return on investment for every £1 spent on the programme over the last three years.

In summary, The Widening Digital Participation programme – and the local partnerships between UK online centres and local health and care providers that it has nurtured – has been proven to drive up the quality of care and drive down both health inequalities and health costs, ultimately improving society as a whole. And that’s definitely a result worth celebrating.

You can read more about the programme and download a copy of the report here: nhs.tinderfoundation.org.

Calling England’s libraries, the time to plan for the future is now

Back in October 2015 we launched a six-month project called the Library Digital Inclusion Fund in consultation with the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce, funding 16 library services in our network of community partners to run innovative schemes with the aim of increasing their digital inclusion activities, thus increasing their potential and cementing their place in society. Yesterday we launched our research findings from that project, proving that libraries’ community roots and partnerships can address social and digital exclusion – but that more needs to be done.

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The library sector seems to be suffering an existential crisis. They are facing tough times. This new project has established that libraries can, with help, reach those most in need (the 12.6 million people in the UK lacking basic digital skills), helping to connect them to digital information and skills. They work from the ground up and often have the resources – free-to-use WiFi and technology, such as laptops and tablets – that learners need. This makes them an integral part of communities everywhere and to lose any one of them is a great loss. Libraries need to live up to their enormous potential before time runs out. But what can we do?

England’s libraries need a solid digital inclusion strategy

The library sector needs to look ahead and develop a plan for the future. A key element is securing investment to make sure they have the most up-to-date equipment and services. During this year’s Be Online campaign I visited Leeds Libraries and went with them on an outreach session to visit a lovely lady called Molly. It was Molly’s first day with the project – she was learning about the internet through the Libraries@Home service and borrowing an iPad with a SIM card (which was developed as part of the Libraries Digital Inclusion Fund project). Without the proper investment, services such as this will no longer exist, and those already suffering social exclusion will be worse off as a result.

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We also need to think about how libraries can plug into other services to help communities and individuals to thrive. For example libraries could work together with local social housing providers to bring their outreach services to tenants who are otherwise unable to access technology and the online world. This kind of partnership would benefit libraries in so many ways, not least by helping them to prove their worth to local authorities, funders and the wider world, in terms of social impact and economic, digital-by-default support.

Now here comes the stats bit (you knew it would be in here somewhere). We’ve done a few calculations to work out the potential savings to local and national government in the areas where the library services participating in the project are based. Based on what we know about the way our learners shift from using face-to-face and telephone services to online channels, we would expect potential cost savings of more than £800,000 per year just through the project beneficiaries alone. If similar low-scale activities to those which took place throughout the project were implemented across all 151 library services in England, a potential £7.5 million per year of cost savings could be achieved.

Utilising technology and making plans to advance their digital work shows that libraries aren’t just about books any more – it shows that they’re moving with the times and planning for the future. I believe that libraries are not out-dated and not a thing of the past; I believe that libraries are an essential part of communities all across the UK and that they all have the potential to mould themselves and adapt to the developing technological world.

Our project supported more than 1,600 people to improve their digital skills at over 200 branch libraries. Target audiences included elderly people, families in poverty, disabled people and the long term unemployed, with activities ranging from job search skills to keeping in touch; connecting with essential government services to managing long term health conditions; understanding benefits to following hobbies.

Libraries may be an old concept but they are by no means obsolete. At Tinder Foundation we believe that we can help libraries with investment and strategy and this research very much shows that. The time to start planning for the future is now – let’s do it together.

Read our Library Digital Inclusion Fund Action Research Project evaluation report here.

Giving evidence for the future of Jobcentre Plus

On Monday I was called as a witness to give oral evidence at an inquiry by the Work and Pensions Select Committee into the future of Jobcentre Plus (JCP).

It was an interesting and lively session, chaired by John Glen MP, with cross party members who were clearly passionate about making job centres a better place for jobseekers.

I was there alongside Kathy Corocan from the Cardinal Hume Centre – part of the Caritas Social Action Network and one of our UK online centres – and Tom Hadley from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation. We talked about our experiences of working with job centres on the ground – and the feedback I brought from the UK online centres network was invaluable.  

Together we drew a picture for the Committee of what is an inconsistent service – a postcode lottery for job seeking support.

Helen at the commitee

Giving evidence at the committee. Image courtesy of http://www.parliamentlive.tv

 

We had to submit our recommendations in advance of the committee and this is what we called for:

  • An extension of the Digital Champion role in every Jobcentre, with an increased number of roles and improved training.
  • Increased transparency of funding in local areas.
  • A digital skills assessment for all benefit claimants and mandatory digital skills training for all those without digital skills.
  • The UK online centre search and Learn My Way platform to be embedded on all DWP devices, both for advisors and claimants.
  • Significant investment from DWP in digital skills, providing funding to support jobseekers to improve their digital skills and move into employment.

At Tinder Foundation, we know very well that in some places JCPs really get it, and there’s brilliant relationships with community partners like UK online centres to help support people to meet their job seeking commitments.  

In other places those external relationships don’t exist, and there can be a real breakdown in the relationship between claimants and advisors.

For me, one of the key concerns is how commonly our network sees advisors who simply underestimate how difficult it is to use the internet if you don’t know how to.

I told the committee about an experience I had sat with a lady in a homeless hostel in London. Her JCP advisor had set her up with an email address and logged her onto Universal Jobmatch. She didn’t even know what the internet was, let alone what an email was, or what to do next. The assumption was she’d just ‘get it’. But in order to get there she had many other steps to go through – steps the JCP hadn’t counted and weren’t a part of her plan. That put her on the back foot from the get go, and she was struggling to keep ahead of sanctions.

It’s a story we’ve seen a lot of across the 5,000-strong UK online centres network – people are being sanctioned because they don’t have digital skills. We don’t know how many people, but it’s not a one-off comment from the network.

The good news is that 65,000 people were referred to the network from the JCP last year. Over that year, we actually supported 89,000 unemployed people looking for work to improve their digital skills. When Universal Jobmatch first came in, we identified the huge impact that had on our network with people flooding in to learn digital skills, and we’d worked with centres and claimants to build our online Universal Jobmatch guide within five weeks. Within two weeks, it had been used more than 5,000 times.

JCP has big changes planned. This should change the incentives local JCP staff work to. The expectations is the new Work Coach role will bring a culture change. Currently, the goals advisors set people are about getting onto Universal Jobmatch, making x number of searches or applying for x number of jobs in x time period. There’s sometimes a limited understanding of whether or not someone is job ready, what their digital skills are to start with, and a misunderstanding of whether or not someone having access to the internet actually means they can use it effectively.

Having Facebook on your phone doesn’t mean you can automatically job search, by yourself, confidently, every day of every week. We need to change how we diagnose those skills needs – and wider needs – and what checks and milestones we can put in place to track someone’s progress.

Here’s the thing. If someone has been unemployed and digitally excluded for a long time it’s unlikely they’re going to just magically get online and get a job. There’s something else going on, there are other factors there that need exploring. We need to look at the whole person, the routes of their issues and what their barriers are.

That’s not something I expect JCP advisors to do on their own. There are places out there that exist to fill in those gaps (some of them are UK online centres). It’s great many JCPs already refer successfully and we would like more to work with us on those referrals – to us and other support agencies – to help identify someone’s issues more effectively, and set their goals accordingly.

Fundamentally, DWP is planning a change in culture, a fresh approach. And that culture change at JCP needs to come from the top. I believe there needs to be a better understanding of the impact of digital exclusion. Job centres now have equipment, and they now have WiFi, but neither of those solves the very real digital skills gap that’s causing some very real pain on the ground.

As witnesses, we all agreed that new work coaches and new diagnostic tools aren’t enough by themselves – we need a universal commitment to addressing digital skills, and addressing each person as an individual.

We went on to talk about the physical job centre space, and how they could become more welcoming.

We were also challenged to go away and come up with six key questions to ask people to assess their skills levels and wider needs – something much deeper than Are you online? Tick or Do you have an email address? Tick.

Finally, I made the point that all the work UK online centres currently do is 80% funded by government – and mostly by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, for whom we move people across the digital divide for around £15 a head. While we report to the Department for Work and Pensions through this programme each quarter, we don’t have an official nor funded relationship with them. We do value the informal relationships we have with committed and intelligent people who see the changes needed much more clearly than I do.

There is huge potential for us to take the models of good practice and seed them across the rest of the country. I’m looking forward to seeing how the Committee’s recommendations are developed, and how we can continue to help that process along. Hopefully, we’ll see the results on the frontline very soon.

If you’d like to see me in action at the Committee, you can do so here on Parliament TV.

Paving the way for a leading digital nation

Recently I attended a breakfast debate and the launch of a publication called ‘The UK: A leading digital nation’, a project between Matt Warman MP and Brands2Life – a digitally-led communications agency. The government are in the process of creating a digital strategy and in parallel to this, project experts were invited from technology, business and politics to put forward their thoughts on what they think will really help make the UK a leading digital nation. I was delighted to be one of those experts.

Helen quote

My quote in the publication. Image courtesy of Brands2Life ‘The UK: A leading digital nation?’



The publication looks at particular key areas:

  • Upskilling the nation with digital skills and to use new technology, with particular focus on young people and businesses.
  • The provision of 10Mbps broadband for everyone.
  • The digitisation of public services.
  • How the process of changing laws and decision-making creates a challenge for getting the regulatory environment right, when tech innovation changes the sector.

At the event Matt Warman MP said that ‘infrastructure and skills must go hand-in-hand’. He said ‘skills are not just about coding but about preparing for a digital working life’. I recently read a piece of research that found UK businesses aren’t doing enough to upskill their current workforce, instead choosing to hire younger staff for their digital output. On the other side of the spectrum, despite their tech-savvy reputation it was also found that one in three 18-34 year-olds are worried about being left behind at work because they lack digital skills.

If Britain wants to be a leading digital nation we have to put time, effort and money into upskilling everyone, so they can survive in our new technology-driven world. The government has a big part to play in that. As my quote says, they need to show sustained leadership to tackle the three key barriers to digital inclusion: motivation, skills and access.

At the event Anthony Walker, deputy CEO at TechUK, said that ‘digital should make the world a better place: fix finances and bring everyone together’ and I agree. We all need to work together to make sure that can happen. With more and more services moving online – especially public services – most people need even the most basic of digital skills to get by.

For basic digital skills, Learn My Way is a great resource for people looking to begin their learning journey and if they want to talk to someone face-to-face they can easily locate their local UK online centre by using the search on our website. Our community partners are more than happy to help. To date we’ve supported over a whopping 1.8 million people to get online through the network and by 2020 we want to have helped even more.

Have a read of the ‘The UK: A leading digital nation’ report here to see what you think, but I believe that if everyone in the UK – public and private sectors, government, and the population themselves – commit to making sure every single person in the UK has even just the basic digital skills, then that’s a start to making sure we can become a truly leading digital nation.