SPECIAL FOCUS: Digital Inclusion - Social housing providers have long been at the heart of the battle for social inclusion in deprived communities, and now they are increasingly placing themselves on the front line of the battle for digital inclusion.
Liverpool Mutual Homes (LMH) is the city's largest social housing provider, managing 15,000 formerly council-owned properties. Most of the association's homes are located in the most socially-deprived areas of the city. These neighbourhoods face many challenges including low levels of educational and skills attainment and high unemployment, including significant numbers of young people Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET).
LMH's Neighbourhood Agenda is tackling social deprivation, and digital inclusion is a key element. So alongside such targets as increasing employment opportunities, reducing health inequalities and cutting child poverty, the association aims to "increase access to digital services" as a direct way of improving people's quality of life.
The association has created a two-year vision to increase digital access, the LMH Digital Strategy 2013-15, supported by a delivery plan with a £50,000 budget. It believes better digital inclusion will improves its residents' life chances, health and wellbeing, for example improving their job opportunities through job search support. However, it has found people often lack the skills they need to take advantage of these benefits.
"It is not so much an issue of not having access - that can be an issue, but even if people have not got broadband, they often have got smartphones", says Andrew Oates, LMH assistant director of customer services. More often though, the problem is having the skills to use IT - to apply for jobs online, to look for the lowest cost energy provider or financial products online.
"So we are focusing on skills and training - helping to raise awareness of the benefits of being online."
Much of this work is carried out with partners, Oates says.
The association was a key partner in the "Go-On its Liverpool" campaign led by the national digital inclusion charity Go ON UK, which is credited with bringing 58,000 people online last year - 55% of all people in the city who had never before been online.
Other partnerships include a scheme involving LMH, broadband provider Plusnet and AIMES, an IT company spun off from the University of Liverpool, to provide a total package of free broadband access, a tablet PC and training to 50 households in Kirkdale, a district in North Liverpool.
"We signpost people to sessions run by partners, such as the digital awareness sessions run by digital champions at local branches of Jobcentre Plus", Oates says. "We also provide our own training sessions, contracting with local training provider and social enterprise the Everton Development Trust to provide training, advice and support from three of our office locations. We have also made our community buildings digitally friendly and have developed a network of IT hubs in the community, with residents groups and community organisations."
Part of this work has involved LMH donating recycled PCs and laptops to community organisations, and the association has installed IT suites with Wi-Fi in 17 sheltered housing schemes, aimed at getting older people online.
Other projects include an "inter-generational" training scheme whereby pupils from the secondary school North Liverpool Academy delivered IT training sessions to some of the association's older residents. "Pupils enjoyed passing their skills on", Oates says.
The association also runs a mobile IT training bus named DIANE (Digital Inclusion and Neighbourhood Engagement), which travels to communities to bring training and taster sessions to residents' doorsteps.
All this work is aimed at active promotion of the benefits of getting online, Oates says.
"DIANE attracts a mix of residents from across our estates", he says. "Some of them already have basic IT skills, others have hardly ever used IT. We offer people sessions, let them have a go with laptops, tablet PCs. It just gives people an idea, and hopefully will get them hooked, and then they sign up for further training."
As well as benefits for residents, digital inclusion has clear benefits for LMH as a service provider, generating efficiencies and cost savings, Oates says. As we move towards full implementation of Universal Credit, with benefit claims moving online by default, there is a clear business case for digital inclusion, he says.
As part of digitisation of its own services, LMH has introduced a customer self-service portal developed in partnership with Orchard Information Systems, supplier of the association's housing management IT system.
"The portal allows our customers to do anything they can do over the telephone, online", Oates says. "They can report a repair, receive an appointment for fixing the repair, make a payment, register a complaint, or report incidents of anti-social behaviour.
"Previously, when someone reported a repair online it just sent an email to the team that order the repairs. Now, this actually sends the information into our back office housing management system, so we are giving a genuine 24-hour service."
The association is now developing a mobile app allowing access to the customer portal and its digital services by smartphone or tablet PC, across both iOS and Android platforms. With final testing underway, the association is looking to launch the app in the next few weeks.
In Liverpool, digital inclusion is on the move.
Pictured: An LMH training session helps tenants online.
Liverpool Mutual Homes: www.liverpoolmutualhomes.org