Special Focus: Digital inclusion
A "digital logbook" trial for Birmingham City Council housing tenants is gaining increasing attention among digital public service developers for impressive results in boosting digital inclusion, improving services and generating savings, all at the same time.
The council is the city's biggest social landlord, managing 64,000 properties with a turnover of about 5,500 new tenants every year. Over the past 18 months, it has been one of 12 Department of Work and Pensions pilot areas for the nationwide roll-out of the unified social benefits system, Universal Credit.
The council identified two pressing needs for digital skills training among social housing tenants: first, to help them claim benefit online, because under Universal Credit that will be the only way they can apply; and second, to manage their money. Under the new system, housing benefit will be paid into tenants' bank accounts as part of a monthly lump sum combining all benefits, in contrast to the current situation where the benefit is paid directly to the landlord.
Under the pilot, every new Birmingham tenant was given their own "digital logbook", with sections for different key services including their tenancy; banking; jobseeking; budgeting; and information about the council.
The process of learning digital skills starts with the very first time a tenant logs into the system, says Annette King, Universal Credit pilot project manager at Birmingham City Council. They are asked to enter personal information such as their NHS number and also to give an email address, which a significant number do not yet have.
"We found 20% of new tenants did not have email address, so they can sign up for an account on the system - they can pick from Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail", she says.
Users are next asked to complete online questionnaire about their tenancy conditions, to check they understand key changes such as the fact they are now responsible for paying the rent themselves, King says.
"We want to make sure they can check whether or not they have paid their rent, as we are only going to send statements out once a year: the rest of the time they will have to look online."
Information in the logbook will help people with a wide range of other issues, from those affecting their housing to wider money and life skills, King says: from helping tenants understand what is a rechargeable repair, to encouraging them to set up direct debits and even helping them find work.
"Overall, we wanted to change tenants' outlook and behaviour from one of dependency to doing things for themselves", she says.
"It's a big change for them, but their response has been fantastic - it was everybody's assumption that most people can't handle this kind of thing but in reality 80% can do it with no help or little help."
Of course, that does mean there is still 20% of people who cannot do use the system, King says, for example they have learning difficulties and cannot do it on their own or they are coming out of prison and their probation conditions say no internet use. In such cases, people can nominate an "advocate", with the authority to make entries in the logbook on their behalf
Overall however, the council is saving a significant amount of money from most tenants carrying out more tasks themselves online such as claiming housing benefit or reporting repairs, as these and other services previously went through a far more expensive call centre, King says.
"We have saved £125,000 in administration costs just from people completing housing benefits applications themselves, and we have even saved money on rent arrears by cutting bureaucracy. We did need 25 experienced benefits officers working on the project, but it still saved us money."
The council has also saved £400,000 by helping about 60 people avoid being evicted by managing their money better, since each eviction that does go ahead cost the council £7,000, she says. Other savings have been realised by putting rent statements online rather than posting them out, and in digitising tenants handbooks, which had previously cost £20 per tenant to print, saving up to £120,000.
Another aspect of the project that places a strong emphasis on personal skills and empowerment is the fact that the digital logbook is actually owned by the individual user and can be used both for other purposes and after he or she leaves council tenancy, King says.
"The portal is owned by the individual, not us - we put information in there around tenancy but they can put their own information into it as well, which we can't even see - for xample they can use to record their own history of jobseeking, that they can then show to people in the Jobcentre.
"Even if they leave our housing, they can still access their messages and employment information - they will just have no access to housing information."
There has been widespread interest in the project from other public bodies, she says: neighbouring Solihull Council and the Ashram Housing Association in Birmingham are now using the system themselves and managers from other organisations including Isle of Wight Council and the Scottish Government have come to take a look at it.
The council now intends to continue extending the system to new tenants beyond the pilot stage, King says. "In many ways, the fact that Universal Credit is coming in and forcing people to go online is going to be a good thing, if it leads to people doing more for themselves and frees up money for the council."
Pictured: A Birmingham City Council housing support officer guides a new tenant through creation of a digital logbook.
Digital Log Book: www.digitallogbook.org