Digital inclusion isn’t a new issue. The latest figures launched last month by Lloyds Banking Group as part of their Consumer Digital Index confirm that there are still 11.5 million people in the UK who lack basic digital skills. I’ve been banging the drum about the need for cohesive and coordinated approaches to delivering digital inclusion activity for a number of years, and I know a lot of people in the housing sector have been taking note.
But there’s never been a greater need for us to do more than there is today, with digital exclusion becoming more and more entrenched. People who are left offline in today’s society are more likely to be older, less well-educated, unemployed or to have a disability. And it won’t come as any surprise to housing providers that many of them are living in social housing.
Universal credit continues to roll out, and its increased pace means more and more people are being expected to claim online. The requirement for all jobseekers to access Universal Jobmatch means many are struggling to avoid sanctions, putting them in precarious financial positions. And the Lloyds Consumer Digital Index found that on top of people saving £744 a year just by being online, through shopping, discounts, saving on utility bills or reducing costs, there is an additional ‘digital dividend’ of £444 alone from people using discount or cashback websites.
And it’s not just about the financial stability of tenants. People without digital skills are missing out on a range of wider benefits, from connecting with friends and family, taking charge of their health, and engaging with the things that interest them. Our Reboot UK project revealed that, even among the most excluded groups, digital skills could have significant wellbeing benefits for individuals.
There are some fantastic examples of really great work happening within social housing to tackle some of these really complex issues digitally-excluded people face. But for us to really close the digital divide once and for all, and to ensure that the most excluded get the skills that can change their lives, we need to be doing, and sharing, more. So I wanted to share some ideas of what’s worked for us and those we work with.
Use innovative hooks
The one thing that we know works in digital inclusion is also the most difficult and the most time consuming to do. But engaging people as individuals based on the things that interest them is the most effective way of not only encouraging them to give digital a go in the short term, but to use it in the long term as well. Helping people to Skype with friends and family living in other countries, to research their family history or the local area, or to find videos of the music they love are all ways to engage people on a personal journey based on the things they’re interested in, so they can go on to embed digital into their lives.
Find strength in numbers
We can all work better by working together, and through the 5,000-strong Online Centres Network, we’re making a huge dent in the numbers of people excluded from technology through our shared mission and ethos. Organisations ranging from libraries and jobcentres to faith organisations and small community centres, as well as housing providers, make up the 5,000, but we’re always looking to expand our club. We’d encourage any housing providers who aren’t already part of the Online Centres Network to join. It’s free, and there are a range of tools and resources that can help housing providers to do more, more effectively. Being part of the network means you can also attend our regular events, including our annual conference, and connect with other centres to share ideas and best practice.
We also have a ‘specialist social housing providers’ network’ that you can join, to find resources designed especially for you. Being part of this network will also help you to promote your expertise in supporting tenants to improve their digital skills; find out more at www.onlinecentresnetwork.org.
Work with the local community
The best examples of really effective digital inclusion practice in social housing are from providers who are partnering with other local organisations to reach further, deliver innovative and engaging learning content, and to bring the wider community together. All social housing providers should look to work with others in the local community, including Online Centres, libraries, local GPs, jobcentres and others, to co-design projects and approaches that use a multi-channel, multi-partner approach to really get to the hardest to reach.
Learn from others
The social housing community is a collaborative one and, because none of us can tackle the issue of digital exclusion alone, it’s useful for housing providers to share their knowledge, ask questions and learn from others. The Digital Housing Hub is a great place to hear what other providers have done, and it’s packed full of stories, questions and conversations, so do join up. If you have a question or are wondering about how to implement something, it’s likely that someone else has been in the same boat so do ask away; take a look at digitalhousinghub.ning.com. Twitter is also a great place to connect with others, as well as events and other relevant forums; check out #digihousing for conversations and ideas.
Use existing resources
There are some great initiatives and platforms that can help to kick off or support your digital inclusion activities. Our annual Get Online Week campaign, running again this autumn, can provide the perfect first step for housing providers who have never done any digital inclusion activity before or who can’t commit to running regular activities throughout the year. The campaign encourages a whole range of organisations to run one or several events during the campaign week to encourage people to take their first steps with digital, with help and support to attract new learners. The campaign also benefits from high-profile coverage, meaning there’s a real buzz around supporting people to get online during the campaign week.
Our Learn My Way platform (www.learnmyway.com), developed through funding from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Department for Education, contains a range of online courses that can be embedded within face-to-face delivery, so local providers don’t have to reinvent the wheel when delivering digital skills activities. All courses and learning content have been built with learners, supported by expert partners including the Money Advice Service, Lloyds Banking Group, TalkTalk and more.
I know I’m preaching to the converted, as so many housing providers are doing great work, but the issue of digital exclusion can no longer be ignored. Digital exclusion is the newest form of social exclusion, and we all have a responsibility to act now to tackle it. Our mission is a world where everyone can benefit from digital, but we can’t get there alone. So I want to encourage any housing provider who hasn’t to think about how they can play a role.
Helen Milner is chief executive of the Good Things Foundation.