Housing Technology interviewed digital inclusion experts from BT, New Charter Housing, Sovereign Business Integration Group, Trident Social Investment Group and Viridian Housing about how housing providers should tackle digital exclusion and enable more tenants to transact online.
Reasons for digital exclusion
The reasons for digital exclusion are manifold, but they tend to usually relate to a combination of access, cost and motivation. As Ed Wallace, research and innovation manager, Viridian Housing, said, “There are three main factors: tenants lack the confidence to go online, tenants don’t have easy access to get online, and tenants can’t afford to go online.”
This situation is likely to change in time, partly due to economic and market forces and partly to do with the ageing demographic shift in tenants. Tim Cowland, senior consultant at Sovereign Business Integration Group, said, “It is widely accepted that the main factors preventing digital take-up are a lack of interest or apathy, fear of technology, lack of basic computing skills, cost of connection, and cost of equipment. I would expect that costs may become less of an issue as mobile phone and tablet costs continue to fall. Equally, cost of access is likely to reduce as cheaper domestic deals become available and free wi-fi in public spaces becomes more accessible. I would also expect the skills factor to reduce as more of the population becomes more familiar with technology through their schooling, work and social lives.”
Illustrating how some tenants are confused or lack the confidence to go online, Ed Reed, head of ICT at Trident Social Investment Group, said, “From personal experience, people that don’t use IT often find technology confusing. The way Windows works may make sense to an office employee, familiar with in trays and out trays, filing systems, etc, but these may not factor in other jobs. Furthermore, users don’t always understand the logic processes of a computer. For example, understanding that a document is virtual, and that it does not exist on paper until it is printed and must be saved after changes, is a fairly subtle thought-process that many of us take for granted.”
Business benefits for housing providers
While housing providers do have duty of care concerning their tenants, they naturally need to consider how any digital inclusion programmes fit within their wider commercial concerns and analyse the likely business benefits of digital exclusion, of which the most common benefit is cost savings.
Natasha Clough, head of business development for social housing and digital inclusion at BT Business, said, “Channel shifting enables housing providers to gain efficiencies and cost savings from using online channels, but it also makes them more visible, especially to those ‘silent tenants’ with whom they currently have little contact. Furthermore, one housing provider I spoke to saw an additional benefit from rolling out wi-fi across its estate because that empowered its own mobile workforce, as team members could complete and upload forms remotely.”
Dave Burdis, financial inclusion manager at New Charter Housing, said, “Welfare reform and ‘digital by default’ are the primary motivations behind alleviating digital exclusion for our tenants. Having to apply for benefits online is a huge problem for tenants, especially for those without access to the right resources. Universal credit includes a housing element so it is prudent that housing providers help with skills training, hardware and internet access for tenants in order to help them to manage their rent payments.”
Trident’s Reed said, “If our quarterly rent statements were available online, as opposed to being printed and delivered, we could save a minimum of £10,000 per year from that alone.”
Viridian’s Wallace said, “As a sector, we need to rethink how we approach this issue because collectively we wield significant bargaining power. For example, Viridian is working with 11 other housing providers, the Mayor of London and Digital Unite to find partners to secure a better deal for our tenants and help more of them get online.”
After considering the business benefits to housing providers of supporting digital inclusion, the thorny question of the morality of doing so is raised; do housing providers have a moral imperative or ethical requirement to help their tenants get online? New Charter’s Burdis said, “Our values mean that we will provide support wherever we can and while this may not be a moral obligation; it’s about doing what’s right for our tenants. As a community-based organisation, we have a huge opportunity to provide solutions and partner with other agencies to improve digital inclusion.”
Cowland from Sovereign Business Integration said, “I believe that housing providers have a moral responsibility to support digital inclusion. As well as the benefits to the business of having more transactions completed electronically, tenants can improve their quality of life through improved job opportunities, cost savings through making purchases on-line and improved social interaction.”
Reed said, “Providers have a duty of care to protect both their tenants and to use their resources prudently. A part of that social care is striving to build the individual’s confidence, and to help where possible in giving them the skills to better themselves in a digital age. This responsibility also has consequences, in that if you encourage someone to use the internet, you also have to give guidance on best usage and help them when they run into difficulties. So an effective IT support is also morally required.”
Standalone DI strategies
Unsurprisingly, the consensus view was that digital inclusion programmes work best when they are part of a wider business strategy, rather than as piecemeal, standalone projects. However, it should be obvious, although often not realised, that if housing providers want their tenants to transact more online, they need to make sure that their back-office processes are closely linked with their online services.
Clough from BT Business said, “Digital inclusion has to be part of a much wider strategy, as it will change the way tenants do things, especially interacting with their housing providers. We’ve seen it happening in the private sector over the last ten years – and banks are a great example of this, with their focus on internet services. If housing providers want to do the same sort of thing, their internet strategies have to be aligned to their digital inclusion plan, as there’s no point asking tenants to pay bills and contact support staff online if the website is difficult to use or doesn’t have the capabilities.”
Sovereign’s Cowland said, “Digital inclusion is one piece of a bigger jigsaw. Clearly, there is little point in encouraging tenants to make more use of online services if the services they need are not there for them to use or are not fit for purpose. Digital inclusion will not work if there have been no changes to the back office processes to accommodate the new methods of access.”
Push vs. pull
As with many housing providers’ strategies for the ‘bring your own device’ trend, digital inclusion is a balance between ‘push’ programmes from housing providers and ‘pull’ from tenants for digital inclusion; as discussed earlier in this article, while there are business benefits and some moral imperatives for housing providers to help their tenants get online, it’s also incumbent upon the tenants to make some efforts themselves. As New Charter’s Burdis said, “As long as we are providing services that meet tenants’ needs, including the vulnerable and financially-challenged, and everyone has access to IT equipment at home or in their local New Charter hub and is offered training, then we feel we have provided what we can.”
Trident’s Reed said, “A provider should look at how digital inclusion will improve a tenant’s wellbeing and assist within reason with communal provision of resources. A housing provider’s primary function is affordable shelter, so a tenant shouldn’t expect a housing provider to become an ISP or training company.”
This view was continued by Sovereign’s Cowland who said, “No matter what support is given, sometimes a harder line needs to be adopted to move more tenants to access services online. This is particularly the case where tenants have all the skills and resources available to them to use online services, but still prefer to use traditional methods. In this case, it may be that providers elect to encourage online take up through more forceful measures such as reducing the quality of service offered through traditional means or turning these services off altogether.”
And considering the wider picture of housing providers’ responsibilities to their tenants, Viridian’s Wallaces said, “I still think there is a tendency in the sector to think about our tenants in quite a paternal way and feel nervous about change. I don’t think that we should shy away from doing more online because we’re concerned that people won’t be able to manage the transition.”
Universal credit on smartphones?
The figures for digital inclusion often include the use of smartphones to access the internet and then make the slightly spurious assumption that that counts as internet access; smartphone users do have access to the internet but not in the same way, at least in terms of usability, as tenants with PCs or laptops. Perhaps one critical test of this assumption is whether or not tenants could use their smartphones to register for universal credit and complete the necessary forms; the universal view is that it would be next-to impossible to do so.
Wallace from Viridian Housing said, “Although I’ve not seen the universal credit form yet, from what I’ve been led to believe, this is shaping up to be a weighty piece of work. I would assume that turning this into an intuitive online experience will be a significant challenge, so I struggle to see how this could be turned into a meaningful mobile experience.”
Clough from BT Business said, “I don’t think it’s realistic to expect people to complete forms of any kind on a smartphone, especially those as important as universal credit. They’re just not designed for that purpose.”
Good examples of digital inclusion
We asked the interviewees for examples of good digital inclusion programmes that they had either run themselves or heard about. Viridian’s Wallace said, “Looking at the wider sector, it will be interesting to see how Halton Housing’s digital inclusion initiative develops because it is being very assertive in its attempts to get tenants to go online only. I’ve also been impressed with Circle Housing’s recent work as a lot of thought seems to have gone into making the online experience a very good one.”
Clough mentioned BT’s own digital inclusion programme and said, “We’ve developed programmes such as ‘BT Digital Champions’ to deliver direct social value to the communities we work with. It’s where children in schools are trained to show members of their family how to get online and the benefits of doing so.”
Viewing digital inclusion from a partnering approach, Sovereign’s Cowland said, “One of our customers wants to work with a local authority partner to procure services from an online service provider to roll out free wi-fi hotspots across the whole borough. This will be achieved by fixing wireless access points to lampposts, partner-owned buildings and so on. If the business case is approved, this will provide free wi-fi to tenants and the wider population; so removing one of the barriers. The major benefit of this project will be that it will be at no cost to the participating organisations, as the setup costs will be met by the technology provider.”
Housing Technology would like to thank Natasha Clough (BT Business), Dave Burdis (New Charter Housing), Tim Cowland (Sovereign Business Integration Group), Ed Reed (Trident Social Investment Group) and Ed Wallace (Viridian Housing) for their time in contributing to this article.