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These skills are essential - but don't call them digital

20/02/14

To fight the floods, we must all go online: The Stour in flood, by Paul Clarke http://paulclarke.comIn the modern world digital skills are essential for daily life, delegates heard at this week's Digital Inclusion 2014 conference in London.

"If you look at the flooding, it illustrates this in stark terms", said Tristan Wilkinson, deputy chief executive of national digital inclusion charity Go ON UK.

"Think of an older person near the Thames who looks out of her kitchen window and sees the water moving towards her home. What is the answer? To go to the Environment Agency website for information. All the real time information being presented is online. Alternatives are very limited."

Subsequent insurance claims are likely to be largely handled online as well, Wilkinson said.

But an equally stark truth is that 1 in 5 people in urban and rural communites across the UK are still lacking basic online skills - 11 million adults "who by their own admission don't have the skills to do what they want to do in life", he said.

This group is made up predominantly of older people, but not exclusively, Wilkinson said: some 40% of younger people in social housing, for example, while they were comfortable using social media, could not fill out an online form.

Five years ago, "digital inclusion" focused on getting people online, but the focus now is on a range of basic skills including email and transacting with personal information online, he said. But one barrier is the terminology used when talking to people about gaining these skills, including an unexpected word: "digital".

"Words confuse, and the word people hate most is digital", Wilkinson said. "We found they weren't sure if you were talking about digital TV, or radio. But the web and the internet, they understood."

As part of the Government Digital Service's first digital inclusion strategy due to be published in March, Go ON UK has helped develop a "shared language", a lexicon of phrases and words that have been found to work well, he said.

Context is also important, he said. "Talk about human benefits - people don't want to go online to interact with government. Their motivation is to communicate with family and friends, to do what they want to do."

An example of words that work well can be seen in a recent advert from the Post Office which urged people to "get connected" and said: "we're here to help you take your first steps online". The right pace is important for skills training too, he said: "When you are encouraging people to take the journey, don't force the pace. People don't want to be forced to your schedule, they want to learn, go home, consolidate, talk to people, and then come back and do the next bit."

These engagement messages were supported by William Barker, head of technology and digital futures strategy at the Department for Communities and Local Government

"Digital inclusion is about understanding the people we support, not just saying here is a bit of a kit, you just click a mouse."

Inclusive design of digital services - by involving their users in the process - is incredibly important, Barker said.

"One of the most exciting things I've seen recently is the way a number of local authorities are actually inviting older people into the design process of how digital services happen and the way we deliver services.

"Some of the universal credit pilots are key to this: it is about not just teaching people skills, but getting them involved in design process. If you given someone a value in the process, they will stay on the journey."

For local communities, the rewards of boosting digital inclusion are high, Barker said: according to a model developed by Hampshire County Council for its 'Digital Hampshire' strategy, the ffects drive round in virtuous circle, boosting citizens' life chances and the local economy. For example, an increasingly online customer base allow organisations to save resources by moving services to digital channels; learning and employment opportunities are improved for all ages; and an IT-literate worksforce attracts more businesses to move in.

Public funding for digital skills training is clearly a major problem for councils and other public bodies at the moment, but there is money available in some parts of the public sector that can be used to advance the cause such as the rural broadband find, he said.

"I am also becoming interested in looking at corporate social responsibility funding", Barker said. "How we can encourage them as a sector to look at digital inclusion support? The challenge is, we have yet to join up the dots."

Go ON UK, a "digital skills alliance", has already begun to join up these dots, funded as it is not by government (how passé that would be) but a group of major organisations, mostly companies, including Age UK, BBC, Big Lottery Fund, E.ON, EE, Lloyds Banking Group, Post Office and TalkTalk.

It has pioneered a partnership approach to digital inclusion which was piloted first in Liverpool, then the North East of England, and is set to launch Go ON Northern Ireland on 15 April. A subsequent roll-out across all UK regions begins in June, making 2014 a landmark year for UK digital inclusion.

A local perspective on funding creativity was offered by Kerry Bradshaw, digital inclusion co-ordinator at Connecting Bristol, a collaborative project begun by and supported by Bristol City Counil but which has grown on an open, collaborative cross-sector model that would have been much harder to develop in pre-austerity Britain.

"With the funding cuts, services like digital training are being put under significant pressure," Bradshaw said. "The way to counter the lack of resources is to look at a more collaborative approach involving the private and voluntary sectors."

This approach could have other benefits, as it enables councils to reach deeper into their communities, she said.

"Many of the people we want to engage with are hard to reach because they are offline, and they may have a difficult relationship with the council as well - they may owe us money, for example.

"So the council needs to go into communities, and all agencies, individuals and businesses have a role to play in addressing this. No one agency has the solution."

With Connecting Bristol, Bristol City Council created a shared brand which became "an intermediate space", not council-controlled, in which all organisations can join in on equal terms, Bradshaw said. More than 35 partners have now done so including BT, housing associations, learndirect, Age UK and the council's own customer-facing teams, all sharing a two-way flow of information about their inclusion work.

"Transparency and collaboration has been our success - we work with partners on funding bids", she said. "It is only through genuine partnership working we can reach the people in biggest need, be sustainable and have the biggest impact."
Pictured: To fight the floods, we must all go online: The Stour in flood, by Paul Clarke http://paulclarke.com

Go ON UK: www.go-on.co.uk
Connecting Bristol: www.connectingbristol.org
Digital Inclusion 2014: www.insidegovernment.co.uk/event-details/digital-inclusion/259/

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