Five years ago, at the height of the summer of sport in the UK, the Wheatley Group published its first digital strategy, having just appointed a new role to drive forward both digital connectivity for and with tenants, and to provide a focus for excellence and new approaches to the practical application of new technologies across the business.
Our digital strategy had four key strands:
- The provision of affordable internet access in every rented home;
- Ensuring that every employee and customer was digitally enabled;
- That services were digitally accessible to all – customers, suppliers and partners;
- And that those online services would be easy to use and defined and developed by and with our customers.
In time, Wheatley’s head of business support became the lead on one of the strands of Digital Glasgow – digital participation, reflecting the recognition given to the organisation’s drive to encourage and support inclusivity and remove the barriers that prevented citizens from engaging in this modern, transactional world.
With capital support from the Scottish government, and putting in our own revenue and staff resources, we set up a pilot study for digital connectivity in a single tower block in the north west of Glasgow. At that time, Glasgow experienced a lower than average take-up of digital connectivity as outlined in a number of reports, most critically ‘Across the Digital Divide’ (Carnegie UK Trust, 2013). This study allowed the group to explore technical solutions as well as the impact of providing customers with low (no) cost digital access. As expected, the technical solution worked and could be replicated across similar multi-person dwellings but the business case for doing so proved more challenging and the costs to an individual association outweighed the benefits, many of which accrued to other public bodies as well as local and national governments.
Of significant interest though were the social benefits gained by the participating households. For example, before the trial 59 per cent of the tenants had never accessed the internet before, but by the end 66 per cent were accessing the internet daily, 75 per cent of the tenants saved money from being online, 82 per cent felt confident in requesting a housing service online, 41 per cent sent and received emails for the first time, and 62 per cent searched for a job online.
Anecdotally, we identified tenants who became socially less isolated, such as the former drug user who reconnected through Skype with her family abroad, and the double amputee who was supported in his learning by his neighbours so he didn’t have to go across to the tutor in the community flat. Success is epitomised by the tenant who is now a Glasgow bus driver, having tackled and passed his theory driving test online.
Building on a successful local idea, Wheatley established a strategic partnership with Glasgow Kelvin College and formed the John Wheatley Learning Network, the objectives of which were to provide access to community learning opportunities for citizens, especially in the east of Glasgow. Five years later, this network of local learning centres has grown to 38 and has now stretched right across Glasgow and out to West Dunbartonshire. One of these ‘click & connect’-branded centres is situated in a centre that supports offenders preparing for release and those on community service orders. Early feedback is hugely positive.
A 2015 survey of all these learning centres showed that 31 per cent of first time visitors sought help to write a CV and 51 per cent to improve their computer skills. For repeat visitors, these ratings increased to 65 per cent and 74 per cent respectively. Other indicators were equally impressive.
Throughout these five years, I have always spoken about the need for collaboration and partnership. No single housing association in Scotland (nor I believe elsewhere in the UK) can fulfil the digital needs of tenants on its own. Wheatley has been extremely proactive at working with others, from engaging with the Scottish government and BT in the demonstrator study, with Glasgow Kelvin College and local partners in the ‘click & connect’ centres to organising and running digital showcase events across the country with many others active in the field, including housing associations, council departments and colleagues from the health and care sectors.
More recently, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and Wheatley have partnered to support the development of staff who lack digital skills. Both organisations are early signatories to the Scottish government’s digital charter. SQA staff are encouraged to volunteer 21 hours each year and many are now becoming digital buddies for environmental staff who largely have no or very limited digital skills. This has proven so successful that four workers have now embarked on a National Progression Award (NPA) level 3 course – their first ever venture into the world of formal qualifications. Underpinning the buddy sessions are the SQA’s home-grown digital learning guides, which offer bite-sized video clips on using digital tools in everyday situations.
Wheatley’s strategy has recently been updated and there is now less emphasis on connecting homes. Annual surveys since 2013 have shown a steady increase in Glasgow social housing tenants who are now online. Although still low, the trend is moving in the right direction. There is still a need for multi-partner commitments to fund the capital elements of connectivity across communities and into homes and returns on any such investment will accrue to many more agencies and not just a housing association.
Wheatley’s attention in 2017 is therefore increasingly focused on closing the skills gap of its staff and customers. A new concept ‘digi-know’ has just been launched, providing fun engagement for all in digital technology, from digi-fit using silent discos and fitbit-type wearable technology, to digi-save, helping staff to identify how to save money by shopping and transacting online, digi-care (understanding gadgets and technologies that will allow tenants to stay in their homes longer), and technology for executives (ensuring that our leaders all know how to use technology and encourage their teams from a position of strength).
Finally, we have been working with two universities in Glasgow to develop digital games and gamification. With Glasgow Caledonian University, we have supported multi-disciplinary teams of third-year students (including artists, programmers, developers and designers) to scope and prototype a game that can help tenants. In 2017, the four themes on offer to the students included poverty, sight-loss, staff development and supporting mental health issues. I call this our ‘game of homes’ and it has proved hugely popular. Modern apprentices take part in play-testing at week nine, and not only is there a potentially commercially-viable product, but the students have a more rounded business experience that supports them in their academic submission.
With new websites for each company being constructed, a re-launch of online services to all customers across Scotland, more way-leave opportunities being opened up to potential contractors and service suppliers, a renewed focus on digital specification for our many new homes over the next four years and a re-focus of the work of Digital Glasgow, the next five years, in digital terms, look to be as exciting as the last five.
Graeme Hamilton is the innovation and online services manager at the Wheatley Group.