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Partnership key to tackling inequality in the internet age



Special focus: Digital inclusion

Partnership working is used widely by public bodies to stretch budgets, and ensure services reach all parts of a community. But few projects have built such extensive partner networks as Connecting Bristol, a digital inclusion programme linking more than 500 stakeholders in the city across the public, private, academic and voluntary sectors.

The programme provides support, skills, mentoring and equipment to deliver free digital literacy courses across Bristol. It is led by Get IT Together Bristol, a project run by the digital inclusion charity Citizens Online with support from BT and Bristol City Council, and draws in a wide range of other partners including Age UK; Jobcentre Plus; Learndirect; housing associations; community centres such as Knowle West Media Centre; and even bingo halls, pubs and cinemas who help promote the courses.

Bristol has a strong digital economy with IBM, HP Labs, British Aerospace, Aardman Animations and two universities. But prosperity not equally shared throughout the city: a man born in South Bristol has a 10-year lower life expectancy than if he were born in the North Clifton area, only a 15 minute drive away, for example.

This inequality is reflected in access to IT and digital skills, says Kerry Bradshaw, Digital Inclusion Coordinator at Connecting Bristol.

Her team saw that most previously existing opportunities to learn IT skills in Bristol were aimed at people with some prior knowledge of computers and the confidence to use them, Bradshaw says. To address this gap, and with the help of 15 volunteers, she now runs 12 free beginner computer courses a week in libraries, community centres, housing associations, churches and day centres across the city, focused on helping people over 55 and people with disabilities.

"These partners are able to engage with the people who would benefit from digital skills training: they already know their communities and know how to reach them", Bradshaw says.

The flexibility of partnership is extended to Bradshaw's own role, as someone employed by a charity but seconded to work in an arm's length team within the city council - the Future City project team. The hybrid nature of the resultant Connecting Bristol project is useful both to obtain private sector funding such as the support from BT, and to alter her image depending on her audience, she says.

"Depending on who I am talking to, I can put my Citizens Online hat on, or Bristol City Council", Bradshaw says. "So if want to talk with the council's own customer-facing teams such as housing benefits teams I will put Bristol City Council hat on, and I may get more notice than if I was coming from an outside organisation. But if I am dealing with say Age UK, I can talk as another charity or partner."

All partner agencies play a part in referring residents to suitable courses to meet new learners' needs, she says: "So for example if the job centre has someone who cannot access universal job match yet because they don't know how to use a mouse or keyboard yet, they refer them to us".

Learning is then planned at the appropriate level. "We teach people up to the level of being able to use email and search on the internet, but if a learner is too advanced for one of our I will refer them to a Learndirect course or an IT for work course run by the council's learning communities teams - we don't duplicate anything.

"Most partner agencies play a role in influencing course structure, too - what does their community want or need to learn?"

Bradshaw's past job as a multimedia developer for BBC magazines has meant she was quick to see the potential for using video clips to promote the courses and put people at ease, she says.

"A lot of older people are scared of coming in, they are proud and they may not have been in a learning environment for over 60 years. If a carer can show them a video of someone just like them saying it was a good laugh, it just breaks down barriers. It's all very well me coming in and saying it will benefit them but when they see someone their own age, it really helps."

Good promotional videos also help persuade new venues to play host to their courses, Bradshaw says.

"If we want to run a course in a new venue, the video legitimises it, shows we are a professional set up. They know if we have already worked in a certain library, for example, others feel OK to work with us."

The funded period of the three-year programme comes to an end this December, by which time about 2,000 people should have been through the courses, Bradshaw says.

Further funding is being sought, but in the meantime her team is working with managers in many of the partner organisations such as the housing associations to give them skills to carry on running courses themselves, without central co-ordination if necessary.

Whatever happens it will be vital for digital inclusion work to continue as more and more fundamental services from the government are delivered as digital by default, she says, and as the public funding squeeze continues.

"This is all happening in the context of diminishing resources. But by bringing together everyone's assets, resources and skills we can deliver better, collectively."
Pictured: A poster for the free 'Get IT Together' courses on display at Stockwood Library, Bristol

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