Building a future that works for everyone. Double tick!

It was great to turn on the Today Programme this morning to hear Tracey Crouch, Minister for Sports and Civil Society, talking passionately about the new Civil Society Strategy, and her commitment to working with grassroots organisations to address some of the biggest challenges we’re facing in society today.

The strategy is subtitled ‘Building a future that works for everyone’ – a mission that chimes well with me and my work at Good Things Foundation since our vision is a world where everyone can benefit from digital.

So I eagerly read the Strategy and one of the things that struck me most is the recognition for the great work civil society is already doing, and a Government commitment to doing more to support this. Meeting with a number of Online Centres when putting our consultation response together I heard an overwhelming air of positivity and ambition about what we can achieve together. It is great to see the strategy committing to building on this aspiration.

There’s so much in this strategy to be happy about.

A key theme that comes through is the need to support community organisations, charities, and other organisations with a social purpose to strengthen communities, and to ensure people can have their say about the things that matter to them, combat loneliness, and drive inclusive growth. The Online Centres Network, who are based in thousands of communities across the UK, are already doing this on a daily basis. Tick.

And it’s about putting people and communities at the heart of decisions and decision making. Tick.

The Government will also be launching ‘Innovation in Democracy’ pilots, giving local people more of a say. I’m hoping our #VoiceBoxCafe pilots will get some local people – especially local women – ready and interested in taking part. Tick.

The Strategy commits the Government to a return to grant funding which we know provides greater security, particularly for smaller charities and organisations. We are also pleased to see again the plans to release £145 million of funding from dormant bank accounts to fund activity, particularly around financial inclusion. We know that inclusive prosperity is an area in much need of investment. Tick.

I’m really happy to see the Strategy’s desire to explore how technology can be harnessed to address complex social issues. As you’ll know if you read my blog often – this is something I’m passionate about and it’s right at the heart of what we do at Good Things. The strategy talks in detail about the role of tech for good, and the importance of using technology to solve complex social issues, like loneliness, healthy ageing, online safety, and digital inclusion. You’ll not be surprised to hear that this is music to my ears! Tick.

To do this, the government has committed to working in partnership with experts in both technology and civil society. As an organisation working at the intersection of these two sectors, I’m looking forward to the important role we can play in this. Double tick.

For me, the strategy hits the nail on the head when it says ‘digital technology does not bring progress when it simply creates efficiency. It brings the most progress when it puts the user first, and when digital services are focused foremost on meeting human needs’. We don’t need to get hung up on searching for clever tech solutions and building new platforms – sometimes the biggest impact can be had in using existing, and freely available tools – like using Facebook to bring communities together.

It’s important we don’t think of tech for good as a separate element of the Civil Society Strategy, removed from the people, places and partnerships that make our society thrive. Digital needs to become part of what everyone working in civil society does every day, and for every solution civil society develops, we should always be asking what role digital can play. Tech + people can bring holistic and scalable solutions. How can it be embedded by more civil society organisations more often to help to achieve an even bigger impact? This is something we will keep championing, along with our partners working across the civil society space.

There’s definitely a lot in it to be happy about. As Tracey Crouch said: “Our strategy builds on this spirit of the common good to help create a country that works for everyone. I want people, organisations and businesses to feel inspired to get involved and make a difference. .. Through collaboration, we will unlock the huge potential of this incredible sector, help it grow, support the next generation and create a fairer society.”

As with everything, the actual success will be in the delivery and I will be interested to see how the new strategy develops quickly into tangible action. As a resetting of the relationship between Government, and those driving social action, I think it sets all the right tone. I look forward to hearing more of the detail, and to playing a role to help with that and with the implementation both as Good Things Foundation and as a voice for thousands of community organisations across the Online Centres Network.

The first civil society strategy in 15 years. So, let’s get on with it.

Get Online Week is go go go!

The eagle-eyed among you will have seen my video on social media last week promoting our 2018 Get Online Week registration. That’s right, you can now sign up to take part in our big digital inclusion campaign, taking place this October from 15-21.

We’re going international with the campaign this year, running it in both the UK and Australia. There will be hundreds of new organisations taking part from the Be Connected Network and I’d also love to see lots of newbies in the UK taking part as well. It’s a great opportunity to reach new people, raise the profile of your organisation and to be part of something big.

Last year event holders reached 45,000 people with digital skills and confidence by encouraging them to #Try1Thing new online. This year, we want to reach even more.

If you have any questions about Get Online Week, tweet me on @helenmilner, or get in touch with my team at @getonlineweek.

Taking Be Connected on the road

One of the things I’ve been personally most proud of in the past year is establishing Good Things Foundation in Australia. In the UK, the Online Centres Network is essential to the way we operate. Together we’re a big club with a shared vision – a shared vision of improving lives using digital as an enabler, and a vision of a better society and a better world as a result. I know this is what we do in the UK because of our research and our evaluation as well as by talking to our Network members and to the people they’re helping. In Australia we’re starting to do this too with a new ‘big club’ – the Be Connected Network.

At the end of April I hosted six Be Connected Network Partner events in Australia – in Perth, Melbourne, and Geelong. It was great to take Be Connected on the road and lovely for me to meet organisations who are, or would like to be, part of the Be Connected Network.

It’s so nice to meet people face-to-face. In this digital world it’s great that I can co-work with people on opposite sides of the world virtually (in Sydney and Sheffield) but it’s also nice to meet people face-to-face sometimes too.

In Perth I loved it when one woman, who was thinking of joining the Be Connected Network said to me “I came along today to find out what the catch is; but there’s no catch!” Indeed there isn’t!

In Melbourne it was great to hear new collaborations starting there in the room with Network Partners talking about sharing resources as well as forming new ideas for how they could achieve more together.

And in Geelong a new cooperation was born between three Network Partners talking about how they could share volunteers and signpost between each other as they all helped people learn basic digital skills in Ballarat.

I was amazed and thankful by people travelling long distances to get to the events.

We talked a lot about all of the grant programmes that Network Partners can apply for – including the $50,000 Network Capacity Building Grants. I’m a bit jealous as we don’t have these grants in the UK, and they’re really going to help us to both innovate and scale across Australia with digital inclusion.

Not everything is perfect – a couple of Network Partners said they had older people they were supporting who didn’t want to set up an email address and therefore they couldn’t register on Be Connected. So we responded and we’ve written this guidance note which is now on our Resources page. All the Network Partners love the free online learning courses on the Be Connected website but wanted to know what new content is coming – so we responded with this overview leaflet. I’m glad the Good Things team in Sydney have been able to respond to these issues and are keeping the conversations going.

The thing that I loved the most is how similar so much of our work is in the UK and Australia. One Australian Network Partner said she had been working for 10 years and didn’t know other organisations helped older people to learn how to use the internet – I’ve heard the exact same thing in England. In Australia and the UK I love hearing the stories about people living in our countries having come from all over the world and now being in touch with relatives back home via the internet. Partners in both countries have told me about the 80 something year old or the 90 something year old who is now buying their pet’s food online or video calling a distant grandchild for the first time.

But most of all I loved hearing the passion from the staff and volunteers about spreading the message that the internet can help people to make their lives a little bit better. And then they just get on with it – be it in Geelong (AU) or Gravesend (UK), or in Perth (AU) or Plymouth (UK).

I’m really glad that Good Things is doing our bit to support community organisations and libraries in Australia, the UK, and in Kenya, to help people thrive in today’s digital world.

Thank you to our Good Things team in Sydney for making me feel so welcome.

Good Things Aus

Good Things Aus – hello world!

NOTE: If you’re in or near Townsville, Gold Coast, Brisbane, Darwin, Adelaide, Sydney or Tamworth, you’re very welcome to come along to one of our upcoming Be Connected events. (Sadly I won’t be there but others from the Good Things Sydney team will be.)

Digital and social exclusion are intertwined – let’s tackle them head on

Yesterday, I attended the launch of Lloyds Bank’s UK Consumer Digital Index 2018, where I sat on a panel Q&A session, as did the Chair of Good Things Foundation’s Board, Liz Williams. This Index is an eagerly anticipated piece of research which has been released annually for the past three years – the largest measure of financial and digital capability of people in the UK.

Helen

The headline stats

One of the key findings from this year’s Index is that there are now 4.3 million people (8%) in the UK with zero Basic Digital Skills – this is 470,000 fewer people than in 2017. Though the proportion of UK citizens with the full five basic digital skills has barely changed with 11.3 million people (21%) having limited abilities online.

There are three key tasks that the UK population are unable to do:

  • Create something new from existing online images, music or video – 23.2 million people (43%) can’t do this;
  • Verify the sources of information found online – 13 million can’t do this (24%);
  • And fill out an online application form – 8.6 million people can’t do this (16%).

A stand-out stat is that there are 3.2 million people on the cusp of the full five skills. If they were to gain the missing digital skill, there would be 8.1 million people without basic digital skills.

Making it happen

The big question surrounding this final headline stat is how can we make this a reality? How can we help these 3.2 million people to gain that one missing skill?

It’s Good Things Foundation’s aim to make social change happen through digital. Our UK-wide network of Online Centres support the hardest to reach in society, not just through teaching them about computers and the internet, they are real pillars of support and trust that people can rely on.

A lot of the people who visit Online Centres face some form of social exclusion which can contribute to them being digitally excluded. This year the Index contained key stats on inclusivity as well as digital skills. 3.5 million people with a registered disability are offline – that’s 25% – and 28% of those over 60 are not online, with an amazing 84% of this group saying that nothing at all could motivate them to get online.

The benefits are clear:

  • 10% of the workforce do not have basic digital skills, but if they did, they could be £13,000 a year better off.
  • 4 in 10 people say that being online helps them feel less alone; 21.2m people are less lonely due to digital.
  • 5 in 10 people say that the internet has helped them find a job.

As more and more people get online, the ones who are still left behind become harder and harder to reach. That’s why we need Online Centres. It’s the level of trust and honesty that they offer that these people need and in their own local communities – on their street. They won’t open up to just anyone.

As the digital and social exclusion crevice narrows, it deepens, but thankfully, more and more people are coming together across the sectors, abseiling gear in hand, to make sure we can reach and support those in need to live life to their fullest potential with digital.

Why rural areas are still fulfilling the digital cliche

Last week I attended a roundtable on rural connectivity, hosted by Lord Gardiner, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Rural Affairs and Biosecurity. DCMS were there as well in their broadband capacity as opposed to digital skills. When I was invited to attend this roundtable, I was very keen to go, as a lot of our Online Centres are based in rural areas (our Princes Countryside Fund funded centres to name a few) and it’s important to me to be the voice of those centres at events like this.

Digital exclusion in rural areas – the headlines

Most people will associate rural areas with poor connectivity, low digital skills and isolation. Digital exclusion is the same in rural areas as in urban; nationally, c. 10% of the population lack the skills, confidence and motivation to use the internet, however, people in rural areas face additional barriers, such as accessibility. In this case though, the phrase ‘build it and they will come’ isn’t entirely relevant because even when the right solutions are found for rural broadband there are still people who are digitally excluded in rural areas. We need to reach these people.

The cost of connectivity can be higher in rural areas as it often needs to be supplied by alternative methods, such as satellite. Our rural partners have told us about newer organisations like Gigaclear who have different business models, however, specialising in ‘connecting rural communities by installing pure fibre straight into the home – reliable, future-proof and simple to install’.

In relation to the ongoing dilemma that is Universal Credit, connectivity and digital equipment issues are increased in a rural setting for UC claimants. Some of our Princes Countryside Fund Hubs have told us about individuals they have supported who are required to job search daily and complete online claims whilst trying to combat poor connectivity or having to travel large distances in order to do this using equipment and/or connections in community locations such as Online Centres or libraries. As Universal Credit becomes a bigger and bigger issue, it’s important to make sure jobseekers in rural areas aren’t further disadvantaged.

And finally, a stat to round off the headlines, under the Universal Service Obligation, basic fixed line services are required to be available at an affordable price to all citizens and customers across the UK, but shockingly, 4% of the country doesn’t currently have a solution for achieving the Universal Service Obligation.

What are my recommendations?

Thinking about all of these problems, here are my big recommendations, which I talked about at the roundtable. They are:

  1. Don’t talk about technology and all of the techy solutions but talk about local people and about the benefits that technology will bring:
  • for people, including people on Universal Credit
  • for small businesses and SMEs
  1. Find and empower local community champions
  2. Utilise our model of national systems/models but also allow local solutions and local ownership to flourish
  3. Embrace the concept of ‘doing digital in a place’ eg a digital village where everyone is supported to use the internet. Also, aggregated demand can be a solution to getting commercial or community providers to put the broadband in place
  4. Establish Community Hubs (note not a focus on digital but on community) to help with the holistic needs of that rural community including (and importantly) digital eg. schools, village halls, pubs, et al.

What we need to do is empower ALL communities to take advantage of digital. It’s going to take a lot of hard work but we WILL get there.

The Digital Garage – not just for mechanics

Self employment is on the rise in the UK. According to recent research released by the Resolution Foundation, there are nearly 5 million self-employed workers in the UK today, with this rise in numbers contributing to almost half of the country’s growth in employment. Looking at this research, it’s clear there are many problems facing people who work for themselves, everything from employment rights and protection to lack of pension pots. I’m not saying there is a digital solution to these problems, far from it. But when I was reading about this new research it did get me thinking about the importance of digital for the UK’s 5 million self-employed people and how our The Digital Garage project with Google is helping us to reach them.

It was a pleasure for me to meet Dawn Shotton earlier in February when we hosted the 2 Millionth Learner Awards where Dawn was the winner of the Learning for my Business category. After 25 years working for the NHS, Dawn was determined to establish her own business as a freelance dietician. But Dawn only had very basic digital skills and struggled to establish the online presence her new business would need.

Thanks to the training she received at Online Centre Destinations@Saltburn – using Learn My Way at first then moving on to use The Digital Garage business resources – Dawn’s website is now stylish and professional, she has active social media channels, she’s taken on staff and volunteers and she has clients from across the globe – and she hasn’t looked back since.

Last year, we partnered with Google to bring the Digital Garage programme to the Online Centres Network and the people in their communities. From July 2016 to July 2017, we have committed to helping 10,000 people to improve their digital skills and their digital business skills.

We’re delivering this through 100 community organisations within the Online Centres Network, focussing particularly on small businesses, sole traders and people setting up businesses, supporting them to make the most of The Digital Garage resources.

The stats bit

Here comes the stats bit (you knew it was coming). According to Lloyds Banking Group’s UK Business Digital Index 2016, 62% of small businesses have all five Basic Digital Skills. Good news? Not totally. It means that there are 1.44m (38%) small businesses who don’t have the digital skills they need to succeed.

The Index also shows that there is a strong link between digital skills and organisational success. Nearly three in five small businesses (58%) report increased sales as one of the key advantages to using digital. This rises to 68% for start-ups.

The more digital the small business is, the more the stats paint a picture – the most digital small businesses are more than twice as likely to report increased success than the least digital (64%), with three in five of the most digital seeing a profit increase of more than 20%.

There is definitely a clear correlation here.

Whether the people we are supporting are doing something as simple as creating a business Facebook page or something more intricate like designing their own website, The Digital Garage is an essential resource, and I’m so happy that we’re running this project with them.

You can see updates here as the project continues and read our case studies too.



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.

helen-at-dwp-select-committee

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

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.