This article aims to offer some practical insights into how housing providers can benefit from embedding digital inclusion as a core part of their overall digital transformation efforts.
Building the case for digital inclusion
In 2018, research conducted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggested that eight per cent of people in the UK were estimated to have zero basic digital skills, lacking the ability to manage information, communicate, transact, problem solve or create via digital channels. A further 12 per cent had only limited skills.
The impact of addressing digital skills gaps is well-documented and includes the following:
- The acquisition of basic digital skills improves earnings by around seven per cent and improves employability;
- People with basic digital skills can save up to 13 per cent by shopping online;
- People using digital platforms communicate with friends and family 14 per cent more often;
- Those using online/digital banking and government services online save an average of 30 minutes per transaction.
As a result, there’s a strong argument that supporting digital inclusion goes to the heart of the social purpose of housing providers. It can have a marked impact on the lives of tenants and benefit the communities that we serve.
If this isn’t sufficient incentive alone, there are also clear business benefits for housing providers. Customers with higher earnings, better employment prospects, greater ability to manage their finances and benefits, and a stronger support network of friends and family are more likely to be more resilient, less vulnerable to financial pressures and less socially isolated. All of this has the potential to translate to real benefits for housing providers, including reduced arrears, more independent customers, and stronger communities and local economies.
Taking an integrated approach
There’s a clear need for improving tenants’ digital skills, and a huge range of benefits of doing so. Digital inclusion needs to balance skills and training initiatives with providing the right access to technology, and with infrastructure which make it possible for them to implement digital skills and knowledge regularly until it becomes normal and ‘every day’.
The trade-off between the impact, scale and permanence of these different aspects creates a tricky balancing act for housing providers and means that short-term digital inclusion initiatives can often provide a ‘quick fix’ compared with providing more value and lasting impact as a long-term strategic commitment with sustained investment.
Finding the hook…
While the percentage of people with few or no digital skills has reduced steadily over recent years, it’s important to understand and address the reasons why there are still those who haven’t engaged.
The best way to achieve this can often be through the little things. For example, Sarah Neary, digital participation officer at West of Scotland Housing Association (WoSHA) and a colleague from the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations’ ‘digital champions in housing’ programme spoke recently at a WoSHA conference about a digital participation visit to a sheltered housing complex.
Faced with initial scepticism about whether digital could add value to their lives, Sarah asked about one lady’s interests and found that she and several others in the room were very passionate about knitting. After showing them how to find thousands of free knitting patterns online, Sarah managed to create engagement and open the door to have conversations about how digital could have an impact on other areas of their lives. Working with customers to find ‘the hook’ that motivates, interests and inspires them to see digital differently is a vital starting point and is often the catalyst to achieve engagement over time.
Creating engagement in practice
One of the greatest benefits of creating engagement is when developing and launching digital services. If tenants don’t have the skills, equipment and connectivity, and digital isn’t made an integral part of key processes from day one, these initiatives risk not reaching their full potential.
At Southside Housing, we’re currently underway with a full housing management and finance system implementation. As part of this, we’ll be working with Orchard to launch our own digital self-service platform for customers. While the software aspect of achieving this is relatively straightforward (we’re certainly not the first in the sector to do it), we recognise that, without first engaging our user base and equipping them wherever possible with the skills to take advantage of these benefits, we’d be limiting our chances of success and our potential return on investment.
Rather than focusing our launch plan on the time needed for the actual platform development, we’ll be embedding digital inclusion within our digital strategy, marketing strategy and project roadmap. In practice, this will include engaging customers via survey research and focus groups at the very beginning of the project to understand their needs, potential barriers to adoption and identify opportunities to increase the likelihood of engagement. This will help to ensure that when we do launch our digital solutions, we will have taken our customers along with us. In doing so, we hope that our customers will use and, most importantly, benefit from solutions that they’ve helped co-design.
Digital inclusion as a catalyst
Taking an integrated approach to digital is vital for housing providers who want to transform digitally. By improving our own processes and our customers’ digital abilities at the same time, we can achieve real digital transformation.
Most importantly, digital inclusion has the potential to provide a wealth of social benefits. By first encouraging customers to engage with our own platforms, we also increase their chances of benefiting from digital skills elsewhere and in turn, improve their lives both financially and socially and help to create more vibrant and sustainable communities.
Chris Milborrow is a business improvement manager at Southside Housing.