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The Leeds lessons on digital inclusion

Jason Tutin, Leonardo Tantari
Jason Tutin, Leonardo Tantari
Image source: Leeds City Council

Interview: City council officials Jason Tutin and Leonardo Tantari celebrate national recognition of the 100% Digital Leeds programme

Leeds City Council has made a national mark in digital inclusion, as its 100% Digital Leeds programme has gone from a local effort to a model for others to develop their own initiatives.

'A community based approach to digital inclusion' was published last month by the Local Government Asssociation (LGA), which also provided funds for the council to write up the holistic approach it has pioneered.

“There is no other team at city level anywhere close to this,” says programme lead and digital inclusion manager for the council Jason Tutin. “Greater Manchester and the London Office of Technology and Innovation are doing some great work on this, but at a city level Leeds been recognised as a leading digital inclusion programme.

He says the 50-page model is not overly prescriptive, but guides councils through steps such as: “Choose their partners who they know will have a role to play, then how you structure the conversation, how you monitor and evaluate and report, how you make it meaningful for a particular community. It takes you step-by-step through our community based approach.

“And any council is still welcome to get in touch with us.”

Momentum for growth

He credits Leonardo Tantari, chief digital and information officer for the council and the NHS West Yorkshire Integrated Care Board, for providing the initial momentum for the programme with temporary funding in 2018, then embedding it by moving the 100% Digital team into the Integrated Digital Service in 2020. There is now a seven-strong team in place with a wide network of partner organisations.

“Sometimes digital people focus only on the tech side and we need to do more, so for me it was great to give a strong sign that as a digital function we work for the city and care about how digital is embraced and full accessibility to digital resources,” Tantari says.

The remit is to work across the city and across sectors, reflecting the belief that people who are digitally excluded are socially excluded in other ways, and that the organisations helping them already are those best placed to bring them into the digital fold.

“We work with the organisations and teams closest to the those people and which already have trusted relationships with them,” Tutin says. “That’s homelessness charities, organisations supporting people with learning disabilities, care homes, community healthcare and colleagues elsewhere in the council.

“Mostly, those teams do not understand digital all the time and are not experts in digital inclusion, but that’s where my team comes in, to support them, to increase their confidence and capacity. So when they see digital exclusion as an issue, they know how to tackle it and that they come to my team for support. That can be around issues like equipment or connectivity or staffing and volunteers.”

Making it meaningful

The approach to digital training for the public is partly through gentle introductions in community settings, and partly to make it a feature of accessing services. If somebody has a need for a specific service – such as in healthcare, or connected with homelessness, or looking for employment – the relevant organisation will take them through the digital route, then point out that they can also find other services.

“That’s making public services more convenient and then suddenly the digital world becomes more meaningful to them,” Tutin says.

“Digital inclusion is the means to the end. If we digitally include everyone in the city but it makes no difference to their lives, then what is the point? It is so those people can do the things they need to do more effectively.”

He adds that the relationship with partner organisations works to the advantage of themselves and the programme team.

“We’re the experts in digital inclusion, but not homelessness or disabilities, so we learn as much as we share. We need to learn what digital inclusion looks like in a particular context for a particular community.

“There are some organisations we’ve worked with since the beginning, like Carers Leeds, which supports 74,000 unpaid carers. They now have two digital inclusion workers and an offer embedded within their service so as people come to them there are regular conversations about digital inclusion. We are giving them some more funding from health inequalities sources and they have an offer for those unpaid carers.”

Sharing knowledge

The approach is often for the organisation to appoint someone as digital inclusion champion who is then matrix managed partly by the programme team, ensuring the knowledge is shared both ways. This can often lead to directing them to another organisation that can provide advice on a specific issue with digital.

Both men say that barriers frequently appear, notably in giving people on the poverty line access to devices and connectivity, that when they are provided they can be inaccessible to people with impairments or special needs, and that it can all seem meaningless to people who cannot see a reason to use it.

“It comes back to needing to be meaningful to a person, and those organisations with close relationships have the best grasp of that,” Tutin says. “Those organisations have done a lot of work with individuals and built trust, so it would be unsafe for us to do it without their involvement.”

He adds: “Our approach is that every organisation has a role to play but nobody has to do everything. We join the dots.”

There have been a number of achievements since the launch of 100% Digital Leeds, including: the training of more than 3,000 digital champions from over 250 teams across the city; £200,000 in direct funding for over 150 third sector organisations; support for others in securing more than £1 million; work with the Local Care Partnership in South Leeds on digital health participation; a contribution to the Digital Inclusion Toolkit for responses to Covid-19; and the development of networks of organisations working on the issue.

Sustainability factor

Tutin says a big element of the programme is to make all this sustainable, so the training programmes for partners will be available for the long term and the city’s inclusion infrastructure will remain in place. He points out that people often move in and out of being excluded due to events such as losing their jobs and developing a disability, and as some recover their sense of security others will lose theirs.

This raises the question of future funding, especially given the new pressures on public finances, but Tutin and Tantari area both confident that it will be available. They point to a recent award of £200,000 from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for a project on online safety for older people, especially in BAME communities, and say they have an approach that can bring results.

“The additional funding we bring in is almost never digital inclusion funding but for a particular outcome with digital inclusion as a means to that end,” Tutin says. “It’s outcomes we’re focusing on. We will help those charities to write digital inclusion into their funding bids.”

“I think we will be able to maintain the momentum,” Tantari adds. “It’s part of our job and we are blasting away that other organisations are reaching out in terms of the great work the team is continuing to deliver, and that we have more partners who want to be part of the initiative.”

RoI and quantification

They acknowledge that this will often come with questions about quantifying benefits and returns on investment. A framework, based on survey methodology and evaluated by inclusion charity Good Things Foundation, was in place before the pandemic, but this became redundant as people were driven by the lockdown to use online services.

Efforts to rebuild the evidence base are in the pipeline. A 12-month research project, led by University College London, is set to begin in April to evaluate outcomes in reducing health inequalities, and the Leeds programme team is talking with Leeds Beckett University about a wider evaluation.

In addition, Tantari emphasises that the return on investment is not always about numbers but often qualitative.

“If there is an improved equality of wellbeing for citizens in need there is still an RoI but one which needs a way to express it,” he says. “We can do a lot of calculations and come up with monetary numbers which tell us about savings, but to some extent they become meaningless if the quality of life for individuals has not improved and is sustainable.”

More to come

New projects are in the pipeline, including the aforementioned work with the Leeds Older People’s Forum on online safety, with the Leeds Health and Care Partnership on a digital health hub, and with council colleagues on a bid for money from the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.

Tutin and Tantari say such moves reflect the fact that inclusion is a core part of the council’s digital strategy, and a strong trend in which other teams in the city are now approaching 100% Digital Leeds as they see digital inclusion is a major element of what they need to achieve.

Overall, it is showing what can be achieved with an approach that is both city-wide and involves working with a wide range of partners and communities.

As Tantari sums it up: “I would say there is a potential to unite the communities within the city, and drive a more connected city where everybody has the same opportunities and no-one is left behind.”

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